Promoter “Don King” had gotten Muhammad Ali and Heavyweight Champion George Foreman to sign contracts to fight each other provided they both were given $5 million each. To get the financial support for the fight he sought the help of Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who agreed to sponsor the fight provided that it was held in his nation; he was keen to change the image of Zaire.
The fight was initially scheduled during the last week of September 1974 but was pushed by over a month to October 29th following a training injury suffered by Foreman. Both Foreman and Ali spend over 45 days training in Zaire itself in order to get used to the tropical African climate. Ali in particular was in his elements during the training, he interacted with the locals and went out of his way to help the poor and needy population of the nation ensuring that his team provided them with food and other necessities.
This was the opportunity that Ali had been waiting for well over 3 years since his failed effort to reclaim the title from Joe Frazier. In turn Foreman had won the title defeating Frazier in 2 rounds in 1973. His last two title defenses had lasted a total of 4 minutes. Foreman was a slugger who relieved on raw power to win his bouts, and this was reflected that 37 fights in his 40-0 career leading up to the Ali battle had ended in knockout wins for him. Forget critics, many of Ali’s supporters were also extremely pessimistic leading up to the battle. Part of Ali’s entourage later confessed that they had asked Ali what would happen if he seriously got injured in the fight as they were worried about the quality of hospitals in the nation. Ali had simply retorted by stating that they should make the arrangements for Foreman
By the time the big day arrived Ali was the most popular man in Zaire. Ali was at peace as he made his way to the venue where 60,000 fans clearly demonstrated their support for the challenger by chanting “Ali bomaye” (Ali Kill him). The fight started and Ali showed great aggression early on in the first round landing some strong rights, by the end of the round Foreman had started to come back into the fight.
At the beginning of the second round Ali unveiled a strange strategy. Instead of fighting in the center of the ring he began leaning against the ropes covering his face up and allowing Foreman to hit him on his body at will, at the time this seemed a foolish move. Foreman spent much of the next few rounds failing to find Ali’s face or landing deflected punches, neither which fetched him any points. In the middle Ali kept shooting straight punches at Foreman’s face. As Foreman’s energy faded Ali started taunting him more and more. “That’s all you got George?”, “They Told me you hit Hard” were just some of the jibes thrown at Foreman. This infuriated Foreman more and he grew more aggressive but to no avail. Ali’s defense was in top shape. By the end of the 7th Foreman was completely out of energy and now his strong punches were literally like gentle paws. Before the end of the 8th Ali decided to go on the aggressive, a left and a right found George’s face and off he fell on the canvas. The referee called off the bout with two seconds to go in round and Ali was champion again! The crowd erupted as Ali had achieved what many had deemed impossible after his loss to Frazier.
Ali was in his elements after the fight. He called out all his critics and told them to lay low now and never call him the underdog in any fight again. He stated that the fight had proven that he was, is and will always be “The Greatest”.
The fight highlighted the tactical genius of not just Ali but his team as well, they later named the tactic of tiring out Foreman by laying back on the ropes as rope-a-dope. Ali later confessed that he had even taken encouragement from Foreman’s knockout of Frazier, immediately after the bout Foreman had held his waist visibility tired. Ali’s team deciphered then that if Ali could take the fight to 6-7 rounds and beyond Foreman would be finished.
At 32 Ali had triumphed in a bout which till date is rated amongst the greatest boxing matches of all time, not only for its significance in Ali’s career but also for what it meant to the deprived population of Zaire, to have a great such as Ali live with them for over a month as one of them.