The FIGHT in Review

“You call that a sound?” Roared Bundini, “oyé” his eyes bulging out of his head. His eyes looked ready to be extruded from his skull. Plop would fall to the floor.

“Foreman hits Ali. Muhammad is dead,” Elmo said.

“He’ll never hit him. My man will dance. My man will know how to prance. He’s a genius, he’s god, your man’s a pug. Foreman’ll be looking for the rug.’

31.12.05 – By Michael Klimes: This is an extract from a freestyle rap contest before rap was invented that took place in 1974 between Elmo Henderson and Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown. It is recounted in Norman Mailer’s book simply entitled ‘The Fight’ which retells ‘The Fight’ of boxing history, otherwise known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in a magnificently blunt writing style.

In the chapter ‘King of the Flunkies’ the reader witnesses a bloody verbal brawl between one of Muhammad Ali’s trainers, ‘Bundini’ Brown and one of George Foreman’s sparring partners, pleasantly referred to as Elmo by Mailer. They are having an emotive bust up in the lobby of Hotel Inter-Continental in Kinshasa, the capital of the then Mobutu dictated land of Zaire, the former Belgian Congo. The ferocity of this match up is an event, which underscores the reason for why the world is staring on this former colony: The World Heavyweight Championship Bout between Muhammad Ali (the challenger) and George Foreman (the champion). All ready the allure of that title, the Heavyweight Championship enters the reader’s mind and it makes our eyes sparkle.

Norman Mailer, a winning writer of the Pulitzer Prize not once but twice had the fortune to be there and his writing of this magical experience is spellbinding itself. As readers, we are taken on a breathtaking journey through egoism, sweat, blood, genius, combustible characters and glamour all in Africa!

We start our journey with Mailer or ‘Norm’ (as he pronounces himself) at Deer Lake where Ali is training his body for the fight. Ali’s aura shines through the opening page as ‘Norm’ speaks of, ‘Our World’s Greatest athlete,’ who generates ‘women that draw an audible breath. Men look down. For He is the Prince of Heaven.’ But, all is not going well, Ali’s training is lacklustre, he lacks cohesion and the word he is most synonymous with: Grace is non-existent. ‘Norm’ makes an astounding observation, ‘In later years, Ali would concentrate less about building his speed and more on how to take punches.’

An admirer of ‘The Greatest’ instantly thinks, hang on! How does ‘Norm’ dare to hint that Ali is getting old! A prince never gets old but then we suddenly realise that Ali is 32 and was 32 when he fought to regain the title. We are silenced like his dressing room was just before he embarked to meet his destiny in the ring: That Black Cosmic Force of George Foreman. Many thought Ali was going to be killed and ‘Norm’ shows us why.

Two of Ali’s biggest opponents in the Seventies, aside from Foreman, were the ex-marine Ken Norton, an intoxicatingly awkward fighter and the exceptionally hard sculled brawler, Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Ali had both lost tightly contested first fights to them but also won toughly contested rematches.

Foreman had won the championship from Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973 and had two title defences before he faced Ali, one of them being against that wily Norton. Those two fighters that had given Ali so much trouble did not give the same to Foreman. The way Foreman liquidated both of them in less then three rounds is a bit of an understatement. On those nights, he seemed more like the Grim Reaper stealing not only their bodies, but also their souls. Foreman’s tenure as champion was a testament to raw punching power. No one before or since has hit as hard as Foreman. True, Rocky Marciano gave poor Jersey Joe Walcott a definitive knockout, Joe Louis finished off Billy Conn beautifully and Jack Dempsey gave Jess Willard one of the greatest beating ever back in 1919 but what were they compared to Foreman’s grotesque works of art? Louis and Dempsey both said that they had never witnessed such bulldozing power and when you see Foreman, you know that they knew what they were talking about! This was Ali’s problem as ‘Norm’ points out because he wasn’t only going to see Foreman but have an appointment with him in the ring.

Soon though, we begin to see ‘Norm’s’ reportage on this grand event is not just about the fighters but also a plethora of egos, one of the most powerful is his own. He writes and addresses himself in the third person. Compliments are showered on ‘Norm’ by other people who meet him, the author, is a spotlight illuminating everyone else and they reflect the light back upon him. The Heavyweight Champion says, ‘Yeah I’ve heard of you. You’re the champ among writers.’

‘Norm’ was part of a strong literary team that was fielded for Zaire which, included Hunter S. Thompson who was there covering the fight for Rolling Stone Magazine and had been brutally beaten up by the infamous biker gang, The Hells Angels after they wanted a portion of the profits made from his classic drug fuelled voyage with them in Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. George Plimpton was the representative for Sports Illustrated and was probably most well known for having sparred three rounds with ring legends Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson. Finally there was Budd Schulberg. ‘Norm’ then gladly postulates, ‘Any notions of anonymity had to be discarded.’

True, this unique event attracted many winners, Ali was the only who could draw out such a quantity of quality. During one evening of numerous drinking that ‘Norm’ engages in with his fellow writing compatriots he encounters The One who set up this fight, had the audacity to approach Mobutu with this suggestion of staging the fight in his country and had pledged five million dollars to each combatant. This was the Don King, promoter extraordinaire, washed in controversy and a powerhouse of metaphor. As ‘Norm’ says, ‘He could not say ecstatic if you did not let him add with delight.’

King’s four worthiest allies that help subjugate his talents were, ‘his lambent eyes’, his mouth that fired Shakespearean quotations that made ‘Norm’ remark, ‘How King could talk,’ and his flair of eccentricity as he wore, ‘diamonds and pleated shirts, dashikis with gold pendants, powder-blue tuxedos and suits of lipstick red.’

However, his most potent symbol like a lion’s mane was his afro, searing towards the sky, through the clouds like a rocket from the Apollo space programme.

It all comes together when ‘Norm’ states, ‘You have to meet him.’

It seems that King was as good as talking if not better than Ali. In many ways, ‘Ali liked to talk more than train’ whilst Foreman was the antithesis which made him an anathema. Ali proclaimed to one batch of journalists, ‘If I win, I’m going to be the Black Kissinger,’ but this is what he seemed far from achieving. ‘Norm’s’ fears were increasingly confirmed when he went for a run with ‘The Greatest’ at 3 o’clock in the morning a few days before the fight. ‘Norm’ had a shock discovery when he measured the distance Ali ran with his car, ‘That was two and a half miles, not three!’ After the jog Ali also seemed like a dead stone.

He worryingly exclaimed, ‘Look at Bugner, his greatest fight was against me, of course I didn’t train for any them like they trained against me. I couldn’t. If I trained for every fight like I did for this I’d be dead.’ Ali it seemed was a 32 year fighter looking into the mirror, not only trying to find his younger self but also the joy he once had of working out, which existed 10 years prior. Previous fights had demonstrated his shortage of discipline since his return after that three and a half year lay off. He was apparently up all night at a party before the first Norton fight and then had his jaw broken in the first round and looked competently abysmal. He aged.

Foreman, meanwhile, had youth, brute force and talent to take out Ali coupled with two great ring geniuses as his advisors. Archie Moore, the greatest light heavyweight champion ever who had won the title at 39 and remained undefeated as a belt holder, instructed ‘Big George’ on how to ‘cut off the ring’ with his footwork and apply his crunching power. Moore, one of the sport’s most superb technicians and innovators had been a definite influence on Ali’s unorthodox style of holding the hands down, feinting and relying coy reflexes to keep out of trouble. Once, Moore had done this brilliantly himself and had also fought Ali in 1962 that added another advantage. Similarly, Sandy Saddler, the ex featherweight master imputed his own erudite mind as well with his cousin, Dick Saddler (Foreman’s manager).

Foreman, when training looked like a champion in his prime. He had an effortlessness and an energy that Ali did not have. ‘Norm’ recalled the mood in Foreman’s camp as ‘an imperial confidence in the power and menace of Foreman.’ He also was different from other champions who came before him, ‘Other champions had a presence larger than themselves. They offered charisma. Foreman had silence. It vibrated about him in silence.’

‘The Fight’ Itself:

‘It was a grim dressing room. Perhaps it looked like a comfort station in Moscow Subway,’ remembered ‘Norm.’ Ali meticulously readied himself for the ordeal ahead and attempted to rally support to his cause but the war cries such as, ‘We’re going to dance,’ were just death festering on his liver. Bundini, Ali’s great twin and double act who had always joined with him ebulliently in the, ‘We’re gonna dance like a butterfly and sting like bee,’ was sad because Ali had refused to wear his special robe he had got for him, a deeply personal offence. ‘Norm’ writes touchingly that Ali’s protest goes, ‘Bundini, ain’t we gonna dance? I’ve never seen a time like this when you don’t cheer me up?’ This softens Bundini and then they are reunited just before Ali marches to the ring.

The rest of the fight is history. Ali catapults Foreman into a rage by disrespectfully throwing right hand leads in the first round, clinches Foreman when he can, deflects punches, takes them when he has to, picks off Foreman with his faster hands, mocks him sending him into even more fury, conserves his energy, makes the champion expend his and most importantly lets the ropes absorb the power of Goliath in his now forever famous rope a dope. Ali proved that night he was one of the most intelligent of fighters, unpredictable ring theorists and magnificent practitioners we have had the privilege to see.

Never before has a boxer done something so revolutionary in such fashion. Ali summed up it upwards saying, ‘I want all the fighters to put this in the page of boxing. It’s a wonderful thing when you’re layin’ on the ropes and your guy is hitting ye with his best shots and tiring himself out.’

The aesthetic of ‘Big George’ falling gradually to the ground is probably the most wonderful knock out ever. Prophetically, the delayed rains of the Congo came crashing down in response to Ali’s sermons that he was ‘The Greatest’.

Norman Mailer also has to be congratulated for maybe writing the greatest ever book on boxing. It is a standard text for any lover of sports, chronicling, in rich detail the greatest sport’s event of the 20th Century.

We, as readers become jealous of Mailer as Ali said to him, ‘It’ll be a great experience for you remembering that you ran with the Champion just a few days before the fight.’

How I wish I could have been there at ringside to witness such an exceptional thing.