What Was It Like to Witness the Rumble in the Jungle?

Boxing heavyweight champions Muhammad Ali, left, and George Foreman during the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, on Oct. 30, 1974.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Clarence B. Jones, public speaker, professor:

In 1967, Muhammad Ali had refused to be drafted into the military based on his religious beliefs and moral opposition to the war in Vietnam. “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger,” he’d commented. He was arrested and on draft evasion charges, found guilty, and stripped of his boxing title and boxing license. Ken Norton had broken his jaw in a 1973 fight. In ’72, Joe Frazier had beaten him. By 1974, at 32, Ali was past his prime.

In contrast, George Foreman was at the top of his game, younger, and coming off two-round knock-outs of both Frazier and Norton. He was undoubtedly the favorite in Don King’s matchup.

In September I traveled to Kinshasa. A room was reserved for my stay at the Inter-Continental Hotel. The boxers had been on-site for several weeks, constantly working out. George Foreman cut his forehead during a training mishap, then injured his hand. As a consequence, the match was postponed, then re-scheduled to Oct. 30, 1974, the latest they could safely plan around before the rainy season hit.

Norman Mailer in his book, The Fight, described the atmosphere in Kinshasa after the postponement:

There had been rumors that neither Ali nor Foreman was being allowed to leave Zaire. It was certain at any rate that soldiers surrounded Foreman’s villa In the hour after the Champion was cut, Mobutu’s man in Nele, Bula Mandungu, tried to keep the story quiet, only to discover that word had already gone out to America from one telex machine his assistants had neglected to put out of order.

“You must not publicize this” Bula said, “It will be improperly understood in your country. I suggest you forget about such a story. The cut is nothing. Go for a swim.”

When the postponement was officially announced, President Mobutu sent a small squad of soldiers to the rooms of King, Foreman, and key people associated with them from the United States, to collect their passports … for “safekeeping.” I was able to keep mine.”

Of all of the memorable experiences in Zaire, my foolish acceptance of his invitation to jog with Ali early in the morning as part of his training routine takes the cake. I was in great shape, but after 3 miles, I could barely keep going in the African heat. And I was in the right clothes—Ali would wear combat boots and long sleeves and sweat pants with weights around his ankles. How did he do it?

As the day of the fight drew nearer, the more life and activity at and in the lobby of the Inter-Continental became a combination of street theater and the set of a Fellini movie.

There were men and women from America, the Caribbean, and Europe who were “players” at such events. Men with their white straw hats, capes, and stylish suits. Women with colorful African-theme outfits and gaudy jewelry.

The betting odds favored Foreman 7–1, but Ali was clearly the favorite among the citizenry. In the days leading up to the fight, graffiti turned up on several buildings around our hotel proclaiming, “Ali Boma Ye!” meaning, “Ali, kill him!”

The rainy season was fast approaching; the weather on the eve of the fight was oppressive.

The ring’s ropes had stretched in the heat, and the sponge mat had softened. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, worried that this would make it harder for Ali to move about. The mood in Ali’s camp began to darken. There was concern over whether Foreman could seriously injure, if not kill, Ali.

At 2 a.m. on fight day, we received word that Ali was leaving for the stadium. We were transported by bus from our hotel. The convoy carrying Ali had made it less than a mile before it stopped. According to Mailer, Ali had forgotten his robe, so the vehicles waited while it was retrieved.

The fighters entered the ring at 4 a.m., tied to U.S. prime time to maximize pay-per-view revenues. Officials estimated attendance at 60,000. Mobutu Sese Seko wasn’t among them though: He watched the match on TV from his compound, possibly out of fear of assassination.

I sat eighth row. My initial sensation was dread. I thought this really might be Ali’s last fight. I was praying and hoping he would win, but thought that if he did, it would be a miracle.

Yet, as I watched Ali I had a once-in-a-lifetime view of the most extraordinary grace, elegance, and artistry in boxing. I was spellbound. I watched Ali repeatedly go to the ropes, deliberately. I began to wonder if I were witnessing some grand new boxing strategy unfolding that no one had attempted before.

In the eighth round it seemed Ali was using the ropes to absorb punches, and during that process Foreman was slowing down, showing physical fatigue. The younger man seemed almost lightheaded, as if he were boxing in slow motion. Then, all of a sudden, a flurry of punches by Ali … Foreman dropped to the canvas. He was unable to get up under the count. The referee called “knock out” and declared Ali the winner. Pandemonium broke out. My group ringside jumped out of our seats and we ran into the ring to hug and congratulate Ali.

On the way back to the hotel on the bus, it dawn was breaking. Thousands of people were lined up along the route, shouting “Ali Boma Ye,” and cheering. It seemed as if all of Kinshasa was celebrating Ali’s victory.

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