A young Cassius Clay marked his win of the heavyweight crown in 1964 by shouting, “I shook up the world!’’ Truth is, that was nothing compared to how much he shook up the world 10 years later.
The man who later became Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in what was then known as Zaire 35 years ago today. For better or worse, the world – boxing and otherwise – has never been the same. It was one of the most memorable boxing matches of all time, and only part of it had to do with what happened in the ring in the early morning, local time, of October 30, 1974.
If nothing else, not many single athletic events ever have introduced so many names and phrases – “Rumble in the Jungle,” “Ali, bomaye!’’ and “Rope-a-dope” – into the everyday vernacular.
The fight was the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary, When We Were Kings, in 1996; the massive, James Brown-headlined music festival accompanying it was the subject of another well-received documentary, Soul Power, in 2008. The fight itself is where the best Ali feature produced so far – the 2001 movie, Ali, for which Will Smith earned his first Oscar nomination – concludes.
It permanently altered the careers and perceptions of both fighters. You have to be of a certain age to know how differently Ali was viewed by the public before that fight and afterwards. Being the aging underdog at 32 against a champ as menacing as Foreman, and then beating him so memorably to become the second heavyweight ever to regain his crown, cast the one-time Public Enemy No.1 in a new light.
And if you’re not of that age, you’d have to undergo a complete suspension of disbelief to grasp how the world looked at Foreman then. Today he is cuddly, smiling grill salesman. Then he was a disciplined, scarier Mike Tyson.
It was also Don King’s first ever championship fight promotion which played a significant role in another groundbreaking aspect of the bout. Next summer, the World Cup will be held in South Africa, and one can draw a line directly to that back from Zaire in 1974. Before then, the very idea of a sub-Saharan post-colonial African nation hosting a worldwide event of this magnitude wouldn’t even have been laughed out of the room, it would have gotten whoever suggested it rushed to the nearest psychiatrist.
Yet on that night, the eyes of the world were focused on Ali, Foreman, and the host nation, which had been free of Belgian rule for less time than Ali had been boxing as a pro.
This brings up the negative side of a split legacy. The fact that this unforgettable spectacle took place under the auspices of one of the continent’s most brutal and corrupt dictatorships will forever stick to the bout like a bad smell. It is typical of his story that there is no sign that Zaire and its people ever benefited from the bout in a tangible way.
Back then, however, President Mobutu’s reign was supported by Western nations, including the United States, because it had resisted Communist overtures. His worst atrocities weren’t brought to light until years later. It wasn’t until nearly a quarter-century after the fight that Mobutu was finally driven from power. But the country – now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and wracked with war, famine and death like few other nations today – has never recovered.
But at the time, the scale of what was happening on Zairian soil was overwhelming. Ali and Foreman, legend and reigning champ, were two black American stars making the connection to Africa and its people for the bout. Don King was the money man. An international array of black music stars supplied the beat, and the president of the still-newly-free nation oversaw it all. The entire scenario did, in fact, shake up the world as everybody knew it.
For one sporting event to leave such a cultural footprint is rare. What Ali hit Foreman with in the eighth round to knock him out, was far from the Rumble in the Jungle’s biggest punch.