Thirty years ago this very day took place what some sages nominate as the greatest single happening in the whole history of sports. Which I reckon is stretching it a bit. Just consider a few hundred other back-page occurrences — from Genesis Kid Cain v. Sugar Boy Abel to, well, last week’s Boston Red Sox resurrection which turned 0–3 to 4–3 in the Yankee Stadium. Nevertheless, it sure was some showstopper on 30 October 1974 when big, bad ‘unbeatable’ boxer George Foreman was rumbled in the jungle by Muhammad Ali.
Where were you that dead of night when London closed down for a witching hour — to watch the epic live with me at the Dominion cinema, Tottenham Court Road? And after the cataclysmic curtain call the lights came up and, I swear, the throng of dockers and bankers, peers of the realm and taxi-drivers, crooks and celebs, surgeons from next-door Harley Street and pimps and prostitutes from down the way in Soho all stood and embraced, and wiped their eyes in the wonder of it — as red-hot favourite Foreman’s vast frame lay flat on the canvas in the old kingdom of Congo and Ali crowed above him, ‘I always said I was the greatest, not the smartest. Now you gotta believe me: I’m both the greatest and the smartest.’
They called it the apotheosis of all wars between goodie and baddie. Muhammad, of course, had waged quite a few of those (for either side) since winning the championship as Cassius Clay fully ten years before. He defended his title in style before losing it for three years for refusing the draft (‘I ain’t got nothin’ against them Vietcongs’). Now Ali was an aging 32 and frail with it alongside the mountainous new champion of 25, considered the most terminally brutish hitter in history, who had blitzed to oblivion in just a couple of minutes the only two fighters ever to defeat Ali.
So down by the African riverside Foreman cocked his massive fists and stalked his prey. If not to die there and then, Ali was at least expected to float like the butterfly of his, surely, vainglorious boasts. But what’s this? Crazily, Foreman was invited in — to punch himself out on the challenger’s arms as Ali outrageously reclined on the ropes like a man leaning backwards out of the bathroom window to see if the swallows were nesting in the eaves of his house. This seemingly demented dance lasted for seven three-minute rounds.
At the beginning of the eighth, commentator Harry Carpenter said, ‘Ali’s surely finished now.’ Simultaneously, Ali for the first time smiled, meanly, and at once came off the ropes and pam! pam! pam! three short, sharp, painful shots stung the disconcerted Foreman and turned his face precisely into the path of a viciously nasty nine-inch jackhammer right-hander which startled the night and, as ringsider Norman Mailer was to describe in memorably allowable mixed metaphor, Foreman fell like ‘a six-foot 60-year-old butler who had just heard tragic news’. Once down, Foreman groped blindly like ‘a drunk hoping to get out of bed to go to work’, then gently rolled over and subsided. At which Carpenter squealed, ‘Oh, my God!’ and, alongside Mailer, Britain’s best, Hugh McIlvanney, succinctly summarised: ‘We should have known Ali would not settle for any old resurrection. Simply, having rolled away the rock, he hit George on the head with it.’ And in no time the all-night taxis of London were running again.