The Epic Jungle Fight That Almost Didn’t Rumble
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because life’s most memorable occasions don’t always take place as originally scheduled.
By Sean Braswell
Forty-five years ago, an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide tuned in to see an unforgettable boxing match in October 1974, one that took place at 4 am local time in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). In that match — long known simply as “The Rumble in the Jungle” — a 32-year-old Muhammad Ali knocked out undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman in the eighth round, reclaiming the title in the process after a seven-year hiatus.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Eight days before the scheduled bout, Foreman suffered a deep cut over his right eye during a sparring session. After months of preparation, millions of dollars and tons of hype, the event looked doomed. But it wasn’t canceled. Event organizers, led by the iconic promoter Don King, salvaged the rumble, postponing but not canceling what would prove to be one of the most memorable fights in boxing history.
But the show must go on … and it did.
Both Ali and Foreman spent the summer of 1974 training in the sweltering heat of Zaire to get used to the climate ahead of the scheduled Sept. 25 bout. The former heavyweight champion, Ali had seen his career derailed by a three-year ban for refusing to enter the Army draft in 1967. By 1974, after earlier failures to reclaim the title — including against Joe Frazier in 1971’s “Fight of the Century” — many thought Ali’s time at the top was over.
Meanwhile, Ali’s opponent, 24-year-old “Big George” Foreman, who had notched 37 successive victories (all but four by knockout) before destroying the previous heavyweight champion Frazier in 1973, looked almost unbeatable.
It was a great backstory for a fight. And it had an even greater backer. The Rumble was one of the first forays into the world of boxing for King, a former illegal bookmaker who had managed to assemble a wealthy consortium of investors to finance the fight, including a promised per-fighter purse of $5 million. He’d also convinced a publicity-hungry tyrant, Mobutu Sese Seko, to host it in Kinshasa. Billed as a festival of African unity, the fight was to be preceded by several big-name musical performers, including James Brown and B.B. King. Then things went sideways.
“It’s impossible! The fight will take place as scheduled!” the Zaire government official in charge of organizing the bout reportedly told Foreman’s manager, Dick Sadler, when he learned of the cut that Foreman had received. Eventually, it was agreed that a postponement of up to six weeks would be required, but there was a brief period when it looked like the fight might not happen at all, when Foreman became angry that he hadn’t received a $500,000 payment King had promised him to secure the fight.
But the show must go on … and it did. First, Zaire 74, the music festival featuring Brown and King, went ahead as scheduled in September. And after some tense negotiations, and anxious anticipation among boxing fans across the world, so did the fight. “I was crestfallen, heartbroken and just distraught. when I first heard the news,” says Rock Newman, former manager and promoter for former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, “[but] very quickly the energy of the rescheduling started to build and at the end of the day, the excitement for what was to come far outweighed the disappointment of that cancellation.”
In the end, Ali’s redemption could not be canceled, only postponed. With a crowd of nearly 60,000 chanting “Ali bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”), the challenger felled the reigning champion. “Under an African moon in the darkness before dawn today,” The New York Times reported, “a bee battered a lion as Muhammad Ali registered an eighth-round knockout of George Foreman.”
If anything, the delay of the epic bout helped King and others build even greater anticipation and excitement for the event, says Newman. “It probably ended up being a good thing for the fighters, for boxing and for sports fans because it ultimately turned out to be one of the biggest events in sports history.”