Dignity of Self: My Reflection on “Rumble in the Jungle”

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On Oct. 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali defeated World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. 

The Starting Five looks back 40 years later.

Hey, you hear some rumbling? That’s the “The Rumble in the Jungle” from 40 years ago. You know, that prolific sporting event when challenger Muhammad Ali defeated the World’s Heavyweight Champion George Foreman? That’s what you’re hearing.

Make no mistake. This heavyweight bout transcended the sport of boxing. We’d be remiss if we didn’t look back.

I’m always learning something new about this unforgettable bout. But deep down, the thing that resonated with me was that, despite regaining his title, winning back his belt was secondary. It wasn’t about getting back at critics, nor was it about redeeming himself. For Ali, it was beyond that, way beyond that.

ali-vs-foreman-zaire900Official program for the World Heavyweight Championship held on Oct. 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire.

The fight

Not many thought Ali could beat Foreman. He lost to heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in “The Fight of the Century” by a unanimous decision in 1971 and lost another major bout to Ken Norton in 1973.

Experts and scribes alike didn’t think Ali had much of a shot. We’ve all seen the tapes when Foreman demolished Frazier and Norton. Foreman was at his peak. Ali, people thought, was a step or two behind.

Promoter Don King came out of nowhere and put on this successful event. He signed both boxers to $5 million apiece and found the ruthless dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, as a sponsor.

Ali and Foreman trained hard leading up to the fight. It was originally scheduled for Sept. 25, 1974, but was postponed a month when Foreman’s sparring partner threw a punch that resulted in cut above his right eye. The bout was rescheduled for Oct. 30, 1974.

Fight night was at 4 a.m. West Africa Time to accommodate western audiences. It was only on closed circuit television.

Foreman’s corner expected Ali to dance around the ring. Instead, Ali threw several right-hand leads and landed most of them. No one had thrown a right-hand lead at Foreman for years because everyone knew Foreman would respond with a devastating hook.

Ali threw Foreman for a loop. But Foreman came back with a vengeance. He pounded Ali for several rounds. Ali had no response but to go the ropes. He could only clinch and wait for the right time to fight back.

ALI FOREMAN
The Rope-a-Dope

Ali punched his way out of the ropes and then came the photographic punch. Ali hit him with a right. Foreman’s head twisted about 180 degrees as buckets of sweat poured off. That’s how powerful Ali’s punch was.

Foreman tired fast. By the eighth round, the momentum clearly shifted to Ali’s favor.

Foreman was running on fumes when Ali hit him with a one-two combination. Foreman fell to the mat. It was all over. Ali was champion again.

muhammad-ali-vs-george-foreman-1974-wire-8056af31fb3f99a2_largeReturn of the Champion: Muhammad Ali raises his arms in victory.

“It was Christlike”

Ali’s career ended when I was growing up in the 1980s. My only images of Ali were roach trap commercials and talk show appearances. He visited dignitaries and children all over the world. He did a cameo on Different Strokes and lit the cauldron at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

I really didn’t learn anything about Ali until after I graduated college. I took my date (now my wife Wendy) to a screening of “When We Were Kings,” directed by Leon Gast, and the film impacted me … in a good way. Everything you want to know about Ali vs. Foreman is right there in that Oscar-winning documentary.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched “When We Were Kings.” I practically have the documentary memorized, like every scene from the original Star Wars trilogy. You know what I’m talking about.

What stood out for me was the scene where Ali shares the real reasons he was fighting. It was not for the title itself.

He said the following in the documentary and it stuck with me ever since:

“I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me. But to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want to win my title and walk down the allies, set on the garbage can with the wine-heads. I wanna walk down the street with the dope addicts, talk to the prostitutes. So, I can help a lot of people.

I can show ’em films, take this documentary, and help uplift my people in Louisville, Kentucky; Indianapolis, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; go through Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi and show Black Africans who didn’t know this was their country, “You look like your brothers in Alabama, in Georgia. “They never knew you was over here.”

God is blessing me and it was an accident to help get to all these people and show them films I haven’t seen! I’m well and I haven’t seem them! Now I can get all these films, you governments can let me take pictures and I can take all this back to America! But – it’s good to be a winner, all I’ve got to do is whup [George] Foreman.”

Go back to the beginning of round one. Listen to Zairians chant in unison “Ali Bomaye! Ali Bomaye!” In Zaros language that means, “Ali, kill him!”

The crowds weren’t chanting out of a hatred of Foreman.  They chanted because Ali was fighting for them and for black men, women and children all over the world. It was almost Christlike. It was extraordinary. Ali was fighting for something greater than himself.

AliAfricaAli in Zaire

How Ali and “Rumble in the Jungle” made me a better man

Ali faced overwhelming odds that fight. Foreman was clearly the more powerful fighter. Foreman was a master at cutting off the ring and cornering opponents. Foreman was fast enough to dance with Ali and many Americans wanted him to lose that night.

They never forgot Ali refused to serve in the military. They judged him unpatriotic, traitorous, treasonous and subversive. He  endured prejudice, racism, Islamophobia and even death threats.

I can’t imagine all the pressure he faced. Standing up for your dignity shouldn’t be a lonely path. It’s a path we should honor.

Looking back at sports history, you be hard-pressed to find white athletes who put their dignity on the line for a greater purpose. My favorite athlete isn’t even American. He’s Australian.

Peter Norman, sprinted his way to a silver medal in the 200 meter final at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. American sprinters Tommie Smith won gold and John Carlos won bronze.

Smith and Carlos raised their fists in solidarity for black human rights. Norman supported them and stood quietly on the medal stand wearing a Olympic Project for Human Rights pin.

“I believe in human rights,” Norman told Carlos prior to receiving their medals. Norman was scorned for his actions back in Australia. We know what happened to Smith and Carlos when they came home.

There are also not many white American athletes who are willing to take noble stands as well. I can think of three examples: The 1968 Harvard Rowing Team who supported Smith, Carlos and the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Billie Jean King played for female athletes everywhere against Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes in 1975. She defeated Riggs and proved that women are equal to men when it comes to athletic prowess. The last is former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. Kluwe is an outspoken advocate for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender rights in a hypermasculinized sport. What he did was no easy task as well.

I’m sure there are more. They’re just hard to find. But I believe we need more white American athletes (or whites in general) to step up and use their talents for the greater good, no matter how unpopular it may be.

I’m not a star athlete (I’m a pretty good U.S. Masters swimmer though). I just love pro sports. I especially admire athletes who use sports as a spring board for issues that matter in the world. Professional athletes aren’t supposed to talk about human rights, racism, oppression, sexism, equality, etc. It’s do your job, don’t say anything controversial and be apolitical. Like the 1968 Harvard Rowing Team, King and Kluwe, I hope someday I can take that stand at the right moment and make a difference, no matter the price I may pay.

I take a lot of pride that a black American athlete taught me to be a better man. That man was Muhammad Ali and he showed me in Zaire what dignity of self is all about.

Postscript: While most of my attention was on Muhammad Ali, I want to pay tribute to George Foreman. He is a man full of dignity and a role model as well. He won a gold medal in boxing at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He was one of the most prolific boxers during boxing’s golden age. He is a successful business man (who doesn’t have a George Foreman Grill in their home?) and he regained the heavyweight title at the age of 45. How is that not inspiring to all of us?

 AliForemantodayGeorge Foreman and Muhammad Ali today

2 Responses to “Dignity of Self: My Reflection on “Rumble in the Jungle””

  1. D.N. says:

    This is so well done. I enjoyed this one. Thank you.

  2. Christian this is excellent. Thanks.