48. MUHAMMAD ALI: A true champion
By 1974, Ali had been back boxing for 3 years and had become ‘the people’s champion’ as popular opinion had turned against the Vietnam War and Ali was seen as a hero for standing up for his beliefs against the government. Although he had returned to boxing, he wasn’t the same fighter as before. He had lost his biggest advantage, his speed. However, he had proved he could take a punch. In his loss against Joe Frazier in the ‘Fight of the Century’, Ali was knocked down by an epic left hook that would kill you or me, but he got back up before the ref could even start counting. Ali was now winning his fights through smarts, endurance and sheer determination.
In 1974, Ali signed to fight the then Heavyweight Champ, George Foreman, and just like 10 years earlier against Sonny Liston, no one gave Ali a chance. Foreman had just annihilated two fighters that had beaten Ali, (Frazier and Ken Norton) – and was younger, bigger, stronger and meaner than the 32-year-old Ali. The fight was held in Zaire, Africa, was billed as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ and is now one of sports most iconic events. Leading up to the fight, Ali had told everyone he was going to ‘dance’ around Foreman, but during the bout he used a plan that was either the bravest or stupidest strategy in boxing history. In what was later named the ‘rope-a-dope’, Ali leaned on the ropes and let Foreman use him as a human punching bag. I repeat: Ali let the world’s strongest and most fearsome puncher go to town on him for 8 rounds. Do you know how crazy/stupid/brave/dangerous that was?? By the eighth round, Foreman had tired himself out. Ali took advantage and delivered a combination of punches to produce the knockout victory. Ali had finally regained the title that had been taken away from him seven years earlier. The fight was broadcast around the world and by winning, Ali had become the most beloved and popular person on Earth.
In a perfect world, Ali would have retired after that fight, but instead kept on boxing for another seven years. During these later fights, Ali took many brutal beatings (including the Thrilla in Manilla in 1975, where Ali and Frazier pretty much killed each other in the ring), and thousands of punches to the head. He now suffers from Parkinsons Syndrome, but even though his motor skills have deteriorated, his mental state is unaffected. He remains deeply devoted to Islam (he converted to the more orthodox Sunni Islam in 1975), and lives a peaceful life with his fourth wife, Lonnie Ali.
– The story of ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ is told in the brilliant, Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. I highly highly highly recommend it – it’s free on YouTube so go watch it right now. Seriously, even if you don’t like boxing, it’s just a brilliant film.
– Hunter S. Thompson was in Zaire to cover the fight for Rolling Stone. Instead of going to the stadium to see the bout, he stayed at his hotel and got drunk in the swimming pool. He didn’t file any story.