Muhammad Ali throws the shot that knocks out George Foreman in 'The Rumble in the Jungle.'
Even after three long fights, Ali never quite figured out Ken Norton's awkward style of fighting. Nonetheless, he took the immediate rematch (as soon as his jaw healed) and beat Norton in a unanimous decision in their second fight. Again, it's not an exciting fight. More so than most heavyweight contests, but still not one of the epic battles that Ali would be remembered for. To this day, Norton claims to have won all three of the fights he had with Ali. And to be fair, there's some merit to his objectives. But I have scored the second fight several times myself and believe the fight is clearly Ali's.
So the first hurdle is out of the way. The second is a rematch with Frazier. It is the only time the two met when neither was champion. Again, of the three fights, it is the least exciting. But again, I have scored the fight several times and clearly the night belongs to Ali. In fact, there is a moment early in the fight when Ali has Frazier in deep trouble. A possible knockout looms. But referee Tony Perez mistakenly thinks he hears the bell a full minute early and separates the two fighters to check with the officials. He realizes his mistake and waves the two fighers back together. By then Frazier has had a chance to pull his wits together and the moment is gone. It is the closest to an actual knockout we will ever see between the two fighters.
So now it is just George Foreman and Muhammad Ali at the top of the heap. Both fighters are asking for two and a half million dollars for the fight and in 1974, that's a lot of money for a boxer. Madison Square Garden passes, Yankee Stadium passes, even Las Vegas wants no part of that astronomical sum. Finally, from the most unexpected place in the world, the fight is signed: Zaire, Africa. The former Belgian Congo. The nation itself, is footing the bill. This has never been done before or since for a heavyweight fight.
And so the second 'miracle fight' in Ali's career is set. In my play, Bachelor's Graveyard, I describe the night. And I think it's a pretty good round by round narrative. Here is that excerpt from the play:
First round, everybody thinkin’ Big George was not only gonna win, he might HURT the man, fuckin’ MAIM Ali, maybe put him in a wheelchair. Ding, ding. After all the hype, all the words, all the ballyhoo, it’s finally on. It’s finally ON! Ding, ding. Nobody’s ever come close to whuppin’ Big George, hasn’t gone past two rounds in YEARS. Big George is like this six foot four, two hundred twenty pound, walkin’GILA MONSTER. Beat the shit out of Smokin’ Joe, beat the shit out of Kenny Norton, hell, beat the shit out of EVERYBODY. Ding, ding. Ali’s 32, past his prime, not as fast, not as quick, not as sharp. Ding, ding. Been trainin’ for a year, lookin’ sleek, like a champion racehorse. And he’s mad, he wants his title back, he wants it ALL back. Ding, ding. Augh! Zaire. Africa. The Congo. A hundred and ten degrees in the shade. Witch doctors, voodoo, the heart of the black continent! Ding, ding. Rushes out, man, fucking RUNS to the center of the ring to meet Big George. SLAP. Right hand lead! NOBODY throws a right hand lead at Big George. Slaps the sweat right off his face. Swivels his neck around. Dances away. Back in. RIGHT HAND LEAD! Swap. Like a wet towel on your ass in the locker room. Hits Foreman right in the nose. Hits him harder than anybody’s ever DARED to hit him. Big George is furious. FURIOUS! Wants Ali’s blood, wants his head, wants his heart. Ali grabs him, pulls him in, ties him up. WHAT’S THIS? WHAT’S THIS? Nobody ever thought of it before, but there it is, right in
front of them, right in the middle of the ring, everybody’s mouth hangs open. What’s this? Ali and Big George are the SAME SIZE. Big George is no giant, he’s no Goliath, he’s no gila monster - he’s the same size as Ali. They go to the ropes, Big George throwin’ these big telegraph punches. None of ‘em gettin’ through. And Ali pushes him off, reaches up and puts his gloves on George’s shoulders and SHOVES him to the middle of the ring. MANHANDLES HIM! What’s this? Ding, ding. The fuckin’ African crowd is goin’ crazy! It’s three o’clock in the fuckin’ morning! What the fuck is going on? Ding, ding! Round two. George charges out, steam coming from his ears, got death in his eyes. NO ONE embarrasses big George in the ring. Gonna fucking KILL this man! And Ali, the old warrior, the poet-king, the poet-warrior: he . . . goes . . . to . . . the . . . ropes. The ROPES? Oh, no! Oh, no. Not Ali. Not the king. Not Ali. The fix is in. He’s layin’ down. He’s a dead piece of meat. You can’t go to the ropes with Big George. He kills people on the ropes. That’s the killing zone. That’s where he takes people to butcher them. Oh, FUCK! Big George can’t believe it. He can’t believe it. The dancing master, the speed freak, Muhammad Ali, ON THE ROPES, where he’s always wanted him, where he tossed and turned in his sleep, DREAMING to get him. On the ropes. The place where old boxers go to die. And so he comes for him. Stomps, step by step, toward Ali leaning on the ropes. Big, heavy, awkward steps. Like an executioner wearily trudging up the steps of the gallows. Ali peaking through his gloves, staring at George like a rabbit stares at a hawk, like a mouse stares at a cat, like old, homeless, black men stare at cops. And George goes to work. This is his house, now. He’s home. And Ali, twitching like the last kid on a dodge ball team, swaying and twisting on the ropes, taking those cannon shots on his arms, his elbows, his chest, his shoulders, everywhere but his head. Twisting like a corpse hanging from a tree branch in the wind. It’s all over. An entire STADIUM of people gone quiet, an entire WORLD of underdogs watching the last car wreck they ever wanna see, can’t turn away, can’t stop the pictures, can’t make sense of it all anymore. (Beat. Quietly:) Ding, ding. (Beat.) Ali walks slowly to his corner. Refuses to sit on his stool. Head down. Looks up. Worry on his face. Sweat dripping off his chin. Eyes focused on George less than twenty feet away. And . . .and . . . smiles. And in that heartbeat, that eye blink, that moment of clarity, he knows. He KNOWS. And
for Ali, it’s the best-kept secret on the earth. He’s the ONLY one that knows. He’s smiling ‘cause he knows, deep in his heart, deep in his soul, so deep in himself only a handful of men have ever been there, he knows . . . it’s over. He knows the long fight is his. And like a book that repeats itself, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter, so predictable, so mind-numbing, so sad, and so the fight plays itself out. Ding, ding. Ali leans on the ropes. Foreman follows. Ali protects his head. Foreman swings. And swings. And swings. And . . . Jesus Christ, swings. And Ali talks to Foreman, explaining things, teaches school, lessons of life, talks, pours out his philosophy, makes Foreman understand, recites, demands, scolds, pontificates, talks to him, puts his mouth right up to his ear, drags him into clinch after clinch and lectures quietly into his ear. He says, "My name is Muhammad Ali. You’ve been hearin’ about me since you was a scared, little boy. My name is Muhammad Ali. I been walkin’ in your dreams for years. My name is Muhammad Ali and, listen good, boy, I want it all BACK." Round five, round six, round seven. Ding, ding. Big George can’t even walk to his corner without staggering. He’s so tired of hittin’ on Ali. No man can hit something all night long. Doesn’t matter what it is: a pillow, a tree, a wall. Why won’t he go down? Why won’t he fall? Why won’t he lay down, goddamnit. Who IS this man? And Big George is praying, oh, yes he is. Not big prayers, not even to win anymore. George is praying small now, just get me through another round. Oh, God, I’m so tired. (Beat.) Ding, ding. George pushes himself off his stool. God, I just want this to be over. I’m just so . . . so tired. Ali. To the ropes. Waves George in. C’mon. This is not over yet. You gotta finish me. If you want me to lay down, you gotta kill me, George. Can you do that? You got that in you? Can you kill me? Don’t you know that might isn’t always right? Don’t you KNOW that? (Beat.) On the ropes. Always on the ropes. He looks like a man leaning out his bedroom window to see if there’s a cat on the roof. Big George stumbles toward him. This is all cosmically written. God’s puppets. There’s nothing else for him to do. Just swing. Put his head down and swing. Just swing. (Beat.) And then. Like a flash of heat lightning in the middle of the blackest night in the middle of the loneliest field in the middle of nowhere. Ali starts punching. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight perfect shots to the face. Like a sniper, patient and blindingly fast, firing round after round of ammo. Each punch whips George’s head from left to right, from right to left, from east to west. Each punch hard enough to knock out most men alive. Each punch so fast George can only feel them, not see them. And he starts a slow spin, downward, arms twirling, like a man on a tightrope. He can’t feel his legs. All he can see are lights in his eyes. He’s in the queer room now. Where alligators play trombones and bats sing choruses of hallelujia and time slows to nothing. Stay down, George. Stay down. It never really belonged to you anyway. (Beat. Quiet.) Nine, ten. And Ali raises his hands high above him. Fists clenched. And walks leisurely around his fallen foe, the fallen despot, all the fallen ghosts, a fallen decade. (Whispers.) Ding . . . ding. And it was finished. (Pause.) And nobody knew it, not then, not right then anyway, that it was ALL finished, everything: the sixties, Vietnam, Watergate, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Nixon, Kent State, The Beatles, Wounded Knee, Bobby Seales, Civil Rights, Truth, Justice and the American way. It was finished. The end of a fixed race. And for a few moments, a few days maybe, a few happy, happy moments, everything was as it should be. The crown had been returned to the king and we were a few and a happy band of brothers, the Holy Grail was close and God’s Grace was upon us. (Beat.) October 30, 1974. Three in the morning. (Beat.) And yes, sometimes, sometimes things worked out okay
See you tomorrow.
The Rope-a-dope is born...Ali versus Foreman, 10/31/74, Zaire, Africa