“Everybody stop talking now. Attention! I told you, all of my critics, I told you all that I was the greatest of all time when I beat Sonny Liston. I told you today, I’m still the greatest of all time. Never again make me the underdog until I’m about 50 years old, then you might get me.”
Exuberant in his locker room after having unveiled the now famous rope-a-dope strategy, Muhammad Ali was holding court. Yet again he had pulled off the improbable after beating Heavyweight champion George Foreman, a man few gave him the chance of surviving against, let alone beating.
The fight was billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle” and was held on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire. After brutalizing Ken Norton and Joe Frazier, the 25-year-old Foreman was a 7-1 betting favorite over the 32-year-old former champion. As the rounds passed, Ali became more-and-more confident, often talking to Foreman, even taunting him, “They told me you could punch, George! That all you got, George!?”
In the eighth round, Ali let loose a blistering five punch combination that was culminated by a straight right hand to the face of Foreman. The champion staggered and fell to the canvas, laying flat on his back. The new champion again silenced his critics and left Foreman to ponder what was next.
As 1975 rolled in, America was wrapping up the residual effects of Watergate. Moviegoers were preparing for the June release of what would be a blockbuster when “Jaws” hit the big screen. And on a Saturday afternoon in April, just six months after losing his title to Ali, Foreman would return to the ring in a unique manner that left many, including Howard Cosell, wondering out loud why Foreman had chosen this path.
On this afternoon, April 26, Foreman would fight an exhibition against five fighters in a single afternoon.
Foreman (40-1, 37 KOs) was adamant that he was not at his best in losing to Ali. “There had to be something wrong with me to have lost in Zaire.”
To prove it, and in an attempt to reestablish his aura of invincibility, he would fight five men on the same afternoon.
The scene set was inside the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada. ABC Wide World of Sports aired the action and Cosell was ringside to call all five fights, each scheduled for three, three minute rounds. He dubbed Foreman’s opponents “The Frightful Five” and was joined ringside by the champion, Ali. Ali wasted little time in taunting Foreman and did so throughout the afternoon.
For “Big” George, this was to be the first step back as he wanted another shot at Ali and a chance to reclaim the title he had lost in October.
Foreman looked strong, and big, bigger than when he last entered the ring in Zaire. He was nearly 15 pounds over his ideal fighting weight, weighing in at 232 pounds. Standing on the edge of the ring near the ropes, he peered down at Ali promising redemption.
The five opponents Foreman would face on this afternoon were Terry Daniels, Boone Kirkman, Charley Polite, Alonzo Johnson and Jerry Judge.
Adding to the day’s drama, their names were drawn from a hat to determine their order in facing him prior to Foreman entering the ring.
With Cosell and Ali now in position at ringside, Johnson climbed into the ring as Foreman’s first opponent of the day. Ali continued taunting Foreman and then, hollering at Johnson, encouraging him to use his self-styled “rope-a-dope” strategy to wear down Foreman.
Foreman quickly responded by predicting he would knockout Johnson, a man who had lost to Ali nearly 14 years ago, inside of two rounds. Foreman started the action with more dancing and clowning than fighting, a far cry from the seek-and-destroy mode he had employed throughout his career.
After a non-eventful first round, Foreman opened up in the second, knocking Johnson down and forcing a stoppage.
With one down, he now had four to go.
The afternoon’s second opponent was Jerry Judge. A man who had fought Larry Holmes and Chuck Wepner, Judge immediately demonstrated he wasn’t afraid of Foreman and stunned him early on with a sizzling left hook. Foreman fought back and floored Judge before the first round ended.
In between rounds, Foreman continued to talk to Ali who continued to taunt him from his ringside position. Foreman then played to the crowd who, in turn, booed him.
Foreman went after Judge in the second, knocking him down again. The referee stepped in and stopped the bout much to the chagrin of both Judge and the audience in attendance. Judge and Foreman then exchanged verbal pleasantries and the two began throwing punches at one another after the fight had been stopped. As their corners and the referee tried to break up the post-fight scuffle, both fell to the mat looking more like Rocky Balboa tackling Ivan Drago.
Order was quickly restored as two opponents were now down with three to go.
As Ali continued jawing back and forth with Foreman, Cosell was still puzzled by the antics and behavior of Foreman. He described the events of the afternoon as ugly, weird, a charade and a carnival.
Next up, opponent number three, Terry Daniels. Daniels had fought Frazier in January of 1972, losing via a fourth-round knockout. As the match entered the second, Foreman used his telephone pole left jab to precision and then dropped Daniels with a short, straight, quick left.
The referee swiftly stopped the bout, again an unpopular decision with the fans. Daniels followed Foreman back to his corner and the two began to jaw back and forth. Again a fight erupted after the bout had officially been stopped, this time the camps fighting one-another.
After the dust of the near melee settled, Foreman had dispatched three by knockout with now just two to go.
The fourth opponent of the day was Charlie Polite. Polite had a 13-30 record and had lost by knockout to Frazier in April of 1966. After a relatively quiet first round, Polite attacked Foreman and was on the offensive in the second, prompting Cosell to question whether George was getting tired.
Although beginning to look weary, Foreman responded and fought back, regaining control of the action and winning the fourth contest by decision. Polite was the first opponent of the afternoon that had made it to the final bell.
With four now down, Big George had one to go.
In the final bout of the afternoon, against Boone Kirkman, Cosell concluded Foreman would face his toughest test of his five opponents. Kirkman held a 32-5 record with losses to Norton and Ron Lyle. On another interesting side note, he had another opponent on his dossier, a second round knockout loss to Foreman nearly five years ago.
Again looking down over to Cosell and Ali, Foreman smiled and acknowledged, “I’m tired man.”
As the final bout began, Foreman dug down and attacked Kirkman, opening up with a barrage of power punches. The pace was fast as Foreman dropped his opponent to the mat early in the fight. Kirkman then responded by tagging and hurting Foreman in the second.
Foreman found the energy coming down the stretch and won the third fight rather handily, earning a decision victory over Kirkman.
Cosell rightfully pointed out that in the five fights, Foreman had fought 12 rounds, going longer than any single fight in his entire career. He then took a moment to describe the afternoon.
“Today has been most unimpressive. His behavior has been strange to say the least. And he obviously was seeking to prove something here today. What, I don’t know. Maybe something to himself. Maybe a desperate attempt to reestablish his confidence in himself as a fighter.”
Foreman would return to the ring, officially, on January 24, 1976. He would win a five-round slugfest against Ron Lyle in Ring Magazine’s “Fight of the Year.”
Foreman would not get a second chance against Ali. He would, however, have a chance to exercise the demons from that October night in Zaire.
Well into the comeback of his second career, Foreman fought Michael Moorer on November 5, 1994. On that night, he knocked out Moorer to reclaim the Heavyweight championship.
Poetically, he did it wearing the same trunks that he wore that memorable night in Zaire.