If hadn't been for Don King's relentless persistence, George Foreman's divorce and a brief midnight meeting in a Livermore, California, parking lot, we might not be celebrating the 40th anniversary of 1974's "Rumble In The Jungle" today.
Muhammad Ali had already told King that he would take the fight if the promoter could get Foreman, but King had a hell of a time trying to pin down the heavyweight champion. King kept showing up wherever Foreman went, finally corralling him in the parking lot where he gave him a $5 million purse -- an unheard-of sum at the time -- that persuaded Foreman to agree.
Still, there was one caveat Foreman insisted on before the deal was sealed: He didn't want an official announcement until his divorce from his wife at that time was final. It was also that secret agreement that allowed King to take the fight to Zaire.
"Originally, I didn't want to do it," said Foreman of the prospect of fighting in Zaire, "and I don't think Muhammad Ali wanted to go to Africa. But because King did me a favor and kept the fight quiet until my divorce was final, I owed him a favor. So when he came up with Africa, what could I say but, 'OK, I owe you a favor'?"
Like Ali's first fight with Joe Frazier, in March 1971, we look back on Ali-Foreman as one of a handful of boxing matches that transcended the world of sports. Although Frazier had lost the heavyweight title to Foreman and Ali had gone 13-1 in subsequent bouts since then, the embers of the social upheaval that had galvanized the nation in '71 -- and by extension the boxing world -- still glowed hot. Don't forget, the fall of Saigon and the United States' chaotic evacuation from Vietnam would not occur until April 1975, and the fight for equal rights for all was far from over -- and remains so today.
Foreman was considered by millions of Ali fans as a pugilistic usurper -- a brooding, Sonny Liston-like figure who could never replace their hero. There was, however, no getting around that fact that Foreman had effortlessly obliterated Frazier and Ken Norton, two fighters who had given Ali all he could handle. Even astute boxing minds like Larry Merchant dismissed Ali's chances of regaining the title.
"It ends the same round as [Joe] Louis caught [Billy] Conn [in their first meeting in 1941], and [Rocky] Marciano caught Walcott [in 1952], the 13th round, with Foreman finally catching Ali," said Merchant, then a sports columnist for the New York Post.
Although the fact that the fight was held in Zaire added a layer of exotic mystique to the proceedings, the symbolism of two great African-American boxers fighting for the sporting world's greatest prize in the land of their forefathers was impossible to overlook. That Zaire had recently cast off the shackles of white colonialism only brought the circumstances into sharper focus.
Then-Zairian president Joseph Mobutu was, of course, a despicable dictator, and the money he used to partly finance the fight had been stolen from his impoverished people. There were also rumors that the bowels of the Stade du 20 Mai (20th of May Stadium), where the fight took place, had been used as a torture chamber and scrubbed clean of blood before the fight. It was not an atmosphere conducive to political humor.
"From then on we knew not to make political jokes about Africa," said Foreman.
It was, therefore, against a backdrop of political turmoil and divided loyalties at home, the specter of ghastly violence in Zaire and the general feeling that Ali was about to be annihilated when the two fighters entered the ring.
The scene broadcast to the U.S. via closed circuit on fight night was both spectacular and ominous. The huge stadium filled with a sea of fans shouting "Ali Bomaye," ("Ali, kill him") juxtaposed with armed Zairian soldiers keeping a wary eye on their countrymen, only added to the edgy atmosphere that permeated the unique event. Then came the fight itself, which unfolded like an O. Henry story writ large.
As I sat watching the telecast from a press box at the Philadelphia Spectrum, I was torn between two emotions. My ego wanted Foreman to win because I had publicly predicted he would, but like so many others, my heart wanted Ali to prevail. That battle raged within me as the fight in the ring took several unexpected turns. Ali's sharp right hands in the early going gave rise to hope for those who championed his cause. But the beating he absorbed along the ropes as Foreman unleashed one sledgehammer blow after another appeared to foreshadow the beloved ex-champ's downfall.
Nonetheless, when a reinvigorated Ali sent Foreman tumbling to the canvas with a pair of whiplash right hands in the eighth round, my spirits soared along with those of the capacity crowd at the Spectrum. And when Foreman failed to beat the count, my prediction seemed as meaningless as the discarded popcorn and crushed beverage cups that littered the venue's floor.
It was a jubilant scene repeated around the world. The rightful king had finally been restored to the throne for the first time since he was unjustly banished in 1967. It was a magical moment that seemed to suggest that a better world was dawning, a world where right triumphed over might and even the most downtrodden among us would have a fighting chance of a better life.
It was, of course, an illusion born of euphoria, a fleeting high that would soon vanish as the evils of the world again filled much of mankind with despair.
In the end, the "Rumble in the Jungle" was just a prizefight, a legendary one to be sure -- but just a prizefight nonetheless. Even so, it still stands out among the untold number of boxing matches as something worth remembering, a time when, if even for one night, the sport had showed its true nobility and held it up as a mirror for the all world to see.
How ironic that it took Don King, one of boxing's most-maligned characters, and a clandestine deal with Foreman to bring it to fruition.