As a huge paw sent him flying into the ropes, it was obvious to all 60,000 fans in the Stade du 20 Mai in Kinshasa, Zaire, and millions more watching live on closed-circuit television, that things were beginning to go horribly wrong for Muhammad Ali.
It was October 30, 1974. More specifically, it was the third round of his heavyweight championship fight with George Foreman, a giant of a man, a fearsome specimen of gleaming muscle with the cold, dead eyes of someone who has seen much more of the human condition than society deems healthy.
Foreman, placidly moving every bit as robotically as Frankenstein's monster, much the way Ali had comically suggested in one of the endless pre-fight press conferences, stalked him. Now, in the ring with the champion, however, it wasn't so funny.
Without mercy or the slightest sign of empathy, Foreman pursued the former champion around the 20-foot ring, launching punches from odd angles, winging hooks and power shots that thudded into Ali's body, inhuman blows that seemed too much for any man to withstand.
This was what Foreman prepared for, endlessly chopping wood and training partners in equal measure in the months leading up to the fight. This was why he threw hundreds of punches in succession during training, each one thudding into the heavy bag, each one designed to daze and destroy.
This was the onslaught that felled the great Joe Frazier, sending Ali's first conqueror flying around the ring and spawning the most iconic call in boxing history. Howard Cosell, mesmerized by what he had seen, shouted over and over "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier."
But Ali was no ordinary mortal. On a mission, he believed from God himself, Ali withstood Foreman's offense. Instead of wilting before the storm, like a great sequoia Ali bent, leaning back into the loose ring ropes, avoiding the worst of Foreman's fury, gritting his teeth and bearing that which he could not dodge.
"What I remember most about the fight was, I went out and hit Muhammad with the hardest shot to the body I ever delivered to any opponent," Foreman later told Ali's biographer Thomas Hauser in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. "Anybody else in the world would have crumbled. Muhammad cringed; I could see it hurt. And then he looked at me. He had that look in his eyes, like he was saying 'I'm not going to let you hurt me.'"
Ali would take all that Foreman had, opening up his body and welcoming Big George to come into his embrace. His mouth, much like his mind, was always moving.
One was devoted to processing the nuances of the ring—angle, speed, force and intent, moving faster than any computer, a natural gift that the true masters of the ring hone to a science. The other, less science and more art, alternating between a whisper and a roar, no matter the volume, sending the same message:
"Is that all you got, George?"
Foreman came to the arena in a Citroen, a short ride from the Intercontinental Hotel he had made his home during his seemingly endless months in Africa. Carefully inoculated from all things strange, all things African, he spent his time among the trappings of the West. His mood was alternately hot and cold, as he rebuffed all attempts at friendly conversation with startling honesty.
"Excuse me for not shaking hands with you," Foreman told the author Norman Mailer, who, not knowing better, walked up to greet the champion upon spotting him in the hotel lobby. "But, you see, I'm keeping my hands in my pockets."
"You can train, you can have a thousand people around you, but there’s no one truly to talk this over with," Foreman told the press last year. "You’ve got to spend a lot of time within yourself. I remember about those big fights how lonely it was. You can only talk it over with you, inside you, and the bigger the fight is, the more you have to go inside of yourself. It’s lonely. It’s more than lonely."
Far from the charming infomercial king who would later grow rich selling America electric grills bearing his name, this Foreman was hard to reach—a mystery not just to white sports writers of the time, but to his African hosts as well.
He had come to Africa with his German Shepherd, the same kind of dog the Belgians had used to keep the populace in line. That started him on the wrong foot with the people of Zaire. Not that Foreman stood much of a chance to begin with.
In America, where his draft dodging and association with the Nation of Islam still rankled many, Ali was a controversial figure. In Africa he was beloved. For a nation that had just won its independence from Western powers, Ali's bold stance against the American military industrial complex spoke volumes. And, unlike Foreman, he stayed among the people in a villa across the banks from the Zaire River.
Ali was out often in the community, taking long daily runs and allowing visitors to watch him train—and listen to him talk. While Foreman was reticent, Ali was Ali, never at a loss for words. New York Times columnist Dave Anderson called him part Demosthenes, part Billy Graham, part Edgar Guest and part Flip Wilson (h/t George Plimpton for Sports Illustrated)—"hardly the best of each but surely the loudest."
Ali didn't hit a home run every time, once embarrassing his hosts by suggesting his new African friends would boil Foreman in a pot. But when he spoke of Africa, it was often eloquently, with a tinge of anger invading his words at times, as he thought of all his people who had been cheated out of their homes over the decades.
"Africa is my home," Ali said to a loving press corps that included Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Plimpton hanging on his every word. "Damn America. Yeah, I live in America. But Africa is the home of the black man."
Ali's reflections on race underscored just how black this event was. James Brown and B.B. King provided the soundtrack for the showdown. Two African-American fighters were competing, for the first time, in the heart of Africa, under the watchful eye of military strong man Joseph Mobutu.
Mobutu had seized power in 1965 and had a daunting task ahead of him—uniting Zaire's diverse population of 22 million, separated by tribal, linguistic and cultural gulfs, into what he called "one Zaire, one great Zaire."
A nation with vast national resources, Zaire, and Mobutu as the people's proxy, could afford the ludicrous cost of bringing the world's top fighters halfway around the world to a region in constant conflict. Ali and Foreman were both promised record sums of $5 million apiece.
This was no mere boxing match for Zaire; it was a chance to put itself on the world radar, bringing the kind of attention only an international event like the Olympics could have possibly matched.
Rarely seen in public, Mobutu lived on a palatial estate surrounded by both the ridiculous and the sublime. A walk through his gardens, as well as his offer of outlandish gifts that included a baby lion for Foreman's young daughter, wowed both fighters' camps.
"All my life I've been hearing about the White House," Ali's hype man and confidante Drew "Bundini" Brown told the New York Times upon arriving at Mobutu's palace. "Today I visited the Black House."
To Ali's amazement, even the pilots on his plane into the country were black. And so too, defying all odds, was the promoter, an enterprising self-starter from Cleveland named Don King, described none-too-delicately by referee Randy Neumann as "the slick, jiving, street dude of Super Fly."
It was King who fit all the pieces together and watched helplessly as it almost all fell apart. A cut to Foreman's right eye eight days before the fight, courtesy of sparring partner-cum-long-haul trucker Bill McMurray, delayed the bout more than a month.
Rumors flew that the fighters were being kept under house arrest. While they were warned, in no uncertain terms, not to leave the country, it never came to that. All told, Ali spent 55 days in Africa. When the fight was finally upon him, he was ready.
"How much longer do we have to wait?" he asked the press. "I'm ready to whup George Foreman right now."
Before the bout, Ali watched a horror film called Baron Blood. His camp departed in a row of buses, driving 50 miles past cheering African fans on his way to destiny. Tensions were high in Ali's dressing room before the fight. Plimpton was on the scene for Sports Illustrated, watching in awe as Ali was forced to bolster the spirits of his own entourage.
"This ain't nothing but another day in the dramatic life of Muhammad Ali," he boasted. "Do I look scared?"
His faith bolstered him. In behind-the-scenes footage featured in When We Were Kings, Ali made it clear that Foreman was formidable if he faced him alone. Only with God behind him was the unthinkable even a possibility. A win, he believed, would allow him even more opportunities to reach people worldwide in need, both monetarily and spiritually.
"He looks little in comparison to what I'm getting from it. He ain't nothing now. But if I think about me? Just me and George Foreman," Ali asked, voice dropping to a stage whisper. "Knocked out Joe Frazier like he was God. Knocked out Ken Norton…"
When someone wished him luck, Ali scowled. Luck would play no part in it. Didn't anyone believe in the power of skill anymore? The dam broke when Bundini Brown argued with the fighter over which robe to wear to the ring. His refusal to yield to Ali's wishes, to even look in the mirror at how the robe hung off his shoulders, Plimpton said, caused the normally friendly Ali to explode into violence.
"Ali slapped him, the sound quite sharp in the dressing room," Plimpton wrote. "'You look when I tell you! Don't ever do a thing like that.' He slapped him again. Bundini stood with his feet together, swaying slightly, still holding his robe and looking at Ali. He refused to look at the mirror."
In fairness, Ali's people weren't alone in their doubts. Few gave the former champion much chance against the power and youth of Foreman, who had won 24 consecutive bouts by knockout. On fight night he was a 3-1 favorite for good reason.
The champion had won eight in a row in the first two rounds, including championship bouts with Frazier and Norton, both of whom had taken Ali to the limit and emerged victorious. Against Foreman, Frazier was on the mat six times before the referee stopped the bout. Norton only went down three times before two wince-inducing rights and a left for good measure put him down for the count.
"If Ali wins the fight, it's been fixed," football legend Jim Brown, on hand to provide commentary for the American closed-circuit audience, told Mailer. For once less bombastic than someone else in the room, Cosell was no less certain that Ali's days were numbered.
"The time may have come to say goodbye to Muhammad Ali," Cosell, voice taking on a dignified air, said on ABC's Wide World of Sports, the same program he and Ali had used to rise side-by-side up the ladder of fame. "Because, very honestly, I don't think he can beat George Foreman."
He spoke for many who were skeptical of Ali's powers 10 years after he first took the title from Sonny Liston.
"George appeared to be invincible, indomitable and indestructible," Don King told the New York Times on the fight's 10-year anniversary. "But two days before the fight, he sent somebody to London to demand an extra $500,000."
Foreman, King said, refused to fight without an extra taste of the pie. Already guaranteed a record payday, the champion made a last-second appeal for more. The fight, already plagued by setbacks and threatened by the impending monsoon season, couldn't afford another delay, as King told the New York Times:
Remember now, this was only about eight hours before the bell was to ring. I called Mandinga Bula, who had represented the Zaire Government in the negotiations. Bula hurried over with six soldiers and told George about how he couldn't embarrass the country by not fighting. ...
... By then it was 10:30, only a few hours before he had to leave for the stadium. He took a nap there in his suite at the Intercontinental Hotel where he was staying in Kinshasa, but I've always believed that the wrangling over the money broke his concentration for the fight.
Even with the distractions, the thought of losing seemed never to occur to Foreman. His team, including former Ali opponent Archie Moore, bowed their heads in prayer. But Moore's solemn wish went beyond Foreman winning the fight.
"I was praying, and in great sincerity, that George wouldn't kill Ali," Moore said, captured in the book At the Fights. "I really felt that was a possibility. George truly doesn't know his own strength."
Starting at just after 4 a.m. in order to appear in prime time for American closed-circuit television audiences, it was an electric bout from the start. There was a buzz in the arena as the audience was primed and waiting to explode. These were thoroughbreds—ruthless artists playing for the highest stakes, adjusting their tactics in increments, tweaking their timing and movement just enough to crack through the other's defense.
The cognoscenti were waiting for Foreman to set the tone, to track a dancing Ali around the ring and trap him in the corner. Instead, Ali met him in the center with a stinging right hand. He was fearless throughout, beating Foreman to the punch with a right-hand lead, a blow that can only work when one fighter is significantly faster than his opponent.
By the end of the round, however, Ali had settled into what would become a familiar pattern, leaning back on the ropes, right where Foreman had trained so hard to put him. Right where, Foreman thought, he wanted him.
"I won't kid you," Ali's longtime trainer Angelo Dundee told Hauser. "When he went into the ropes, I felt sick."
Plimpton was eavesdropping when Ali came back to his corner:
...his men stormed at him as he sat on his stool.
"What you doin'?"
"Why don't you dance?"
"You got to dance!"
"Stay off the ropes...."
Ali, looking across the ring, told them to shut up. "Don't talk. I know what I'm doing," he said.
"Everything we planned to do—cutting the ring, overpowering Ali, going after him—was designed to put him on the ropes," Foreman's manager Dick Sadler said. "And there he was. Just exactly where we wanted him."
Elsewhere, in Foreman's corner, a sinking feeling would soon set in. It all felt too easy because it was. Ali's strategy, now famous as the "rope-a-dope" was nothing new in the annals of boxing. Among others, Sugar Ray Robinson, recovering from a hip injury that left his fleet feet flat, had used it against Jake LaMotta in a 1951 fight Ali had watched often.
So had Moore, once Ali's mentor, later his opponent, and now in the opposite corner with Foreman. Moore, too, was well known to fight against the ropes, preserving energy the way a fighter who competes into his 40s has to preserve energy.
Moore knew there was a difference between what Foreman desired and what actually transpired—he had not put Ali in the ropes. Ali had put himself there. Since he'd returned from exile, Ali had contested many of his bouts with his feet planted firmly in one place. This wasn't improvised. This was necessity. This was calculated. And Foreman played right into his hands.
A savvy fighter like Ali, who was comfortable on the loose ropes that allowed him plenty of vertical motion, was able to avoid the worst of Foreman's onslaught. He took a beating to the body and arms, but he was prepared for it. His training often consisted of allowing overmatched sparring partners to beat his midsection to a pulp.
The legend built around this fight suggests Ali pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. In truth, this was his fight even before Foreman ran out of gas. He was ready for Foreman. The champion, who hadn't fought more than four rounds in more than three years, lost steam as the fight went on. You could see him heaving for breath, practically see his punches losing force.
Through it all, Ali talked.
"I hit him with a good punch. You know what he told me?" Foreman said in Champions Forever, a documentary about the great boxers of the 1970s. "'That all you got, George?'"
He told Foreman again and again that his punches were nothing, that he wasn't capable of doing the great Ali harm. Eventually, the champion, a man who had sent 34 opponents to the canvas, may have even believed him. Ali, Moore told Hauser, had convinced Foreman he couldn't hurt him.
"Ali had him thinking and worrying, and he wasted too much ammunition on Ali's arms," Moore said. "And when George got tired against a skilled warrior like Ali, that was the beginning of the end."
By the eighth round, Mailer writes, Foreman had nothing left. He went over, the author said, "like a six-foot 60-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news." A right and a left—blows held carefully in reserve while Foreman punched himself out—sealed the champion's fate, according to Mailer:
... [He] tried to wander out to the center of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world and would see him on his dying day. Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position, eyes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down.
To Plimpton, it was the beginning of a change in America's relationship with Ali. The courage he showed in the ring, his natural charm, the way he emerged unscathed from the belly of the best, meant more, in the end, than political or racial divides:
I think it was the sort of joyous reaction that comes with seeing something that suggests all things are possible: the triumph of the underdog, the comeback from hard times and exile, the victory of an outspoken nature over a sullen disposition, the prevailing of intelligence over raw power, the success of physical grace, the ascendance of age over youth, and especially the confounding of the experts. Moreover, the victory assuaged the guilt feelings of those who remembered the theft of Ali's career. It was good to watch and hear about, whichever fighter one supported. Indeed, one of the prevailing stories the morning after the fight was that never had so many large bets been handed over so cheerfully to their winners.
An hour after the fight, the sky opened. The long-threatened storm had finally come, flooding the arena with three inches of water in a matter of hours. That did little to stop the celebrations, with the Africans celebrating their own burgeoning glory as much as Ali's iconic win.
Ali celebrated the greatest victory of his career in his own inimitable style. Newsweek's Peter Bonventre had followed the champion into the dawning African sun and found him hours later on the stoop of his temporary home, doing rope tricks for a group of African children.
"It was hard to tell who was having a better time, Ali or the children," Bonventre told Hauser. "All I could think was, I don't care what anyone says, there'll never be anyone like him again."
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the bestselling author of Total MMA and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.