Greg Garber

Thursday, October 28
Updated: October 29, 10:48 AM ET
Rumble in the Jungle: Part I

By Greg Garber
Special to

An ebullient Muhammad Ali, circa 1970, proclaimed himself No. 1 on a recent Newsweek cover. The present-day Ali, 57 and sparring with Parkinson's syndrome, is still the one. Like the "Where's Waldo" character, it seems Ali is everywhere these days.

The 25th Anniversary of Muhammad Ali's win over George Foreman in Zaire -- "The Rumble in the Jungle" -- is Oct. 30.'s Greg Garber takes a look at the fight and its impact in a special two-part series. A special feature will also appear during ESPN's 6 p.m. SportsCenter on Oct. 29.

He turned up recently at the White House with B.B. King and Eric Clapton for a VH-1 concert hosted by President Clinton. He found time to visit the University of Michigan football locker room for a pre-game pep talk. He was in the audience when his daughter Laila knocked out April Fowler 31 seconds into her professional boxing debut.

George Foreman, too, is larger than life. Literally. Foreman, 50, is so commercially hot the phone and fax machine in his Beverly Hills agent's office rarely stop ringing. There are those Meineke Muffler advertisements, the namesake grill that has sold millions of units, dozens of kitchen products, a cookbook and an animated television show. An Italian cruise line wants to name one of their ships' restaurants after him.

Can it be 25 years since Ali and Foreman created one of the great spectacles of sport under a pale African moon in Kinshasa, Zaire? A quarter of a century since Ali scored one of boxing's most magnificent upsets, crafting a brilliant strategy of inertia against the younger, stronger world heavyweight champion? Twenty-five years since the Oct. 30, 1974 fight when Ali regained the title with the world in his corner?

Yes, yes and yes.

Touching a generation
In a first-person account in Newsweek, Ali said the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" victory over Joe Frazier was his greatest fight ever, but then proceeded to devote two-thirds of the article to "The Rumble in the Jungle."

Muhammad Ali
Ali walks away from Foreman knowing victory is in hand.

"The Rumble in the Jungle was a fight that made the whole country more conscious," Ali wrote. "I wanted to establish a relationship between American blacks and Africans. All the time I was there, I'd travel to the jungles, places where there was no radio or television, and people would come up to me, and I could touch them. The fight was about racial problems, Vietnam. All of that."

Foreman, at 25, precisely half his present age, did not have Ali's global view.

"You know what?" Foreman said from his Houston home Wednesday evening. "It seems like a whole 'nother world ago. You're young and you're not really sure of what you're doing. You just want to destroy everything that gets in your way.

"I may have lost that fight, but I learned a lot from it."

Even in Foreman's world of sweetness and hype, that is a grand understatement. Almost exactly 20 years after Ali stood flat-footed against the rings and let Foreman punch himself out, Foreman knocked out a younger Michael Moorer to regain the championship he had lost to Ali, a record 20 years in between titles.

"I was able to use that wisdom I didn't have 25 years ago," Foreman allowed. "If I had it back then, I don't think Muhammad would have tricked me into being his big old dope."

It was promoter Don King, the former numbers runner from Cleveland, who created "The Rumble in the Jungle" tag. In truth, the West African republic of Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, was not an uncivilized place. Kinshasa's population was 2.5 million.

President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, reportedly the world's seventh-wealthiest man, staged the fight to expose the world to the vast beauty and resources of his country. He offered Ali and Foreman unprecedented purses of $5 million each.

What President Mobutu didn't count on was the presence of King, promoting his first big fight. When Mobutu saw the posters with King's other slogan, "From the Slave Ship to the Championship!" he ordered them burned.

Divergent views
The phone rings in Dr. Ferdie Pacheco's Miami home.

"Man, I'm tried of doing this," he says, after a reporter explains his mission.

Pacheco, a fixture in Ali's corner over the years, is a busy man. He's reading a Civil War novel, rendering paintings, generally living life beyond the past. He's been getting a lot of calls lately about "The Rumble in the Jungle." He probably has a right to be cranky.

"Aw, let's go," he says. "What do you need?"

Pacheco places the "Africa fight" well below the "Thrilla in Manila," and on par with the first Sonny Liston fight.

"The Liston fight was important because if he had quit in that fourth round, not being able to see anything, there never would have been a Muhammad Ali. He would have stayed Cassius Clay," Pacheco says.

"Africa was of equal importance. We had a new champion, fighting in an emerging African nation. But viewed with a cold, dispassionate eye, Africa was not a great fight. It's Ali out-thinking a guy totally erroneous in his thinking. And then closing the deal."

A few miles up the coast in Hollywood, Fla., Angelo Dundee can barely contain his enthusiasm talking about Zaire. A German television crew is coming over later to interview Ali's long-time trainer and the telephone calls have been picking up.

"I've done a half-dozen things already," he says in his classic gravel-crunching voice. "People hunger to know about this.

"No doubt in my mind, this was Muhammad's greatest fight."

Larger than ever
While noted journalists, from George Plimpton to Norman Mailer to Hunter S. Thompson, made the journey to Africa, Dick Schaap only got halfway there. Schaap was in Luxembourg when the fight was postponed for a month when Foreman suffered a cut near his eye during a sparring session.

  The Rumble in the Jungle was a fight that made the whole country more conscious. I wanted to establish a relationship between American blacks and Africans. All the time I was there, I'd travel to the jungles, places where there was no radio or television, and people would come up to me, and I could touch them. The fight was about racial problems, Vietnam. All of that. ”
—  Muhammad Ali in Newsweek
He watched the fight at Madison Square Garden. Sitting in his Manhattan office earlier this week, Schaap tried to put the fight in context.

"Both men were well-known at the time, but they became even huger characters after that," Schaap says. "Twenty-five years later, they are bigger than they were then. Which is bizarre. Think about it. When it was time for Foreman to disappear, and he didn't. When it was time for Ali to walk off into the sunset, and he didn't, either.

"Twenty-five years later, they both remain huge figures. Who would have thought that could happen?"

Indeed, Foreman, the brooding champion, has become a genial giant of a pitchman. Going to school not only on Ali's ring strategy, but his personal style, Foreman is, according to agent Henry Holmes, "making more money than God."

It is, Holmes says, "A daily game of checkers to accommodate everyone. He has a great personality and he believes in sharing it. He cuts across so many demographics, it's hard to define his market."

Foreman is, once again, a father. George V, the fifth of five boys named George and most recent of 10 children, has Foreman back on diaper duty. He squeezes those household chores in between the promotional appearances, motivational speeches and commercials. There are sausages to sell, a line of meat tenderizers, a new cookbook and an upcoming movie, the story of his life.

Will "The Rumble in the Jungle" be given an appropriate role in the picture? Will that devastating loss, a personal tragedy, be given credit for the evolution of Foreman's personality?

"I think so," Foreman says. "The world wants to laugh. The world desires to be happy. I learned you can be that to people. I walk through airports and people are all stressed, worried about where they're going. I see them and explode into happiness.

"I saw Muhammad talking the whole time before our fight in Zaire. People were drawn to him. I said to myself, 'Hey, he's on TV. Put me on TV, too, I've got something to say.' It's like when I saw Paul Newman selling salad dressing. I liked him so much, I said, 'Whatever he's selling, I'll buy it.' I didn't even like the dressing, but I bought it anyway because he was so great."

Says Dundee, "The remarkable thing about George Foreman was the way he changed. He came back worldly after becoming a preacher and meeting all those people. He became a hell of a spokesman for the human race.

"You get so much with that smile of his. That's so much better than a frown. That smile, it's a wonderful thing."

Dundee knows from first-person experience. Twenty years after "The Rumble in the Jungle," he was in Foreman's corner when he regained the title with a 10th-round knockout over Moorer.

It is ironic, too, that while Foreman's charisma continues in steep ascent, Ali's traces a similar curve in the opposite direction. His once-magnificent body, left too long in the ring, has betrayed him. His mind is still sharp but after 61 fights, he shuffles and speaks in a slurred whisper.

There are still times, however, when he is Muhammad Ali again. Times when his eyes dance as brightly as the Olympic torch he lit in Atlanta in 1996. Recently, when an ESPN SportsCentury camera crew visited his 80-acre estate in Berrien Springs, Mich., and played "The Rumble in the Jungle" fight for him on a monitor, Ali smiled, then grew misty.

It was, in terms of drama and his unique science of sweetness, Ali's finest moment.

Friday: Part II -- How Ali upset Foreman

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