The 48th anniversary of the historic fight is almost upon us!
Muhammad Ali is considered one of the greatest athletes to walk the face of the earth. An undisputed boxing legend, he is known around the globe for his skills, activism, and larger-than-life personality. Passing away six years ago, Ali’s legacy is still alive and well, the boxer recently getting a musical on Broadway about his life, and rare drawings from Ali’s personal collection recently selling for nearly $1 million.
Still, there is much to unpack, especially for the next generation of Black youth who need to learn and understand the cultural impact of Ali and why he means so much. We recently reported about the exhibition fight between Ali and NBA superstar Wilt Chamberlain that never happened, but let’s dive more into Ali’s matches and how they impacted his career. While the champ had many wins under his belt, there was one particular fight that was critical in turning him into the global superstar we know him as today: “The Rumble in the Jungle.” The fight took place on October 30, 1974, and featured boxing legends Ali and George Foreman. As we come up on the 48th anniversary of this historic match, let’s take a look back at just why The Rumble in the Jungle was so important, courtesy of Origins at Ohio State University.
Ali’s rise to stardom
Born Cassius Clay, he had already been making a name for himself in the boxing arena. During the 1960s Rome Olympics, Ali won a gold medal for the United States, quickly becoming a major heavyweight title contender. While he was always charming, Ali’s star just kept rising and he won favor with fans who found his life and story just as entertaining as his fights.
In 1964, Ali won the heavyweight title against Sonny Liston, simultaneously announcing his affiliation as a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and his decision to denounce his former “slave name,” changing it from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. This immediately put a spotlight on Ali and made him one of the nation’s most famous Black nationalists.
He refuses the draft
In 1967, thousands of young men were being drafted for the United States Army as the controversial Vietnam War waged on. While Ali was classified as eligible for the draft, he immediately and publicly refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army, asking “to be re-classified [as] a conscientious objector on the basis of his status in the NOI. His refusal meant he would forfeit his heavyweight championship title and while Ali was seen previously as a “divisive Black nationalist,” his open refusal resonated with many Americans at the time and gained him the respect and admiration of the people.
Ali resumes fighting
In 1970, Ali’s right to fight was restored as he appealed his draft evasion conviction. He then began training to regain his heavyweight title, failing on his first attempt at a fight against Joe Frazier. Touted as the “Fight of the Century,” Ali and Frazier duked it out at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, and his defeat at the hands of Frazier was Ali’s first professional loss. Frazier eventually lost the title two years later to George Foreman in two rounds, hence the famous “Down goes Frazier!,” line by sports broadcaster Howard Cosell.
Foreman was a successful boxer as well but the polar opposite in terms of cultural impact in comparison to Ali. He rose to prominence during his Olympic gold medal win at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. After defeating Soviet boxer Jonas Cepulis, Foreman celebrated his win with a tiny American flag. In the eyes of fans, this was a direct contradiction to what other Black athletes were doing at the time, with Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously staging their Black Power protest at the exact same Olympics.
While Foreman was typically quiet, his stance spoke volumes and was in direct contradiction to Ali’s overt Black nationalism. The two fighters also had very different styles, Ali relying on his speed and footwork while Foreman won most of his fights with sheer power. The contrast made for an ideal public match-up.
Don King was a former banker from Cleveland who was relatively unknown in the promotion's world. However, he promoted a charity exhibition featuring Ali on behalf of a local hospital in Cleveland and his charisma and skills with numbers showed promise. King was able to convince both Foreman and Ali to sign fight agreements for a guaranteed $5 million payout for both of them. The only problem was that King had yet to secure the $10 million. He found the money in an unlikely source, Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko, who agreed to give King the money as long as the match would be held in Zaire.
Zaire was formerly known as the Belgian Congo and is known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, in 1974, it was known as one of the most exploited countries in all of Africa. After World War II, many countries formerly colonized by Europeans struggled to gain their independence, resulting in a slew of political infighting. With the global tension created by the Cold War, there rose a host of authoritarian governments.
The first leader to be democratically elected post-independence was Patrice Lumumba, who was ostracized by both the United States and Belgium as a result of his pro-Soviet, pan-African views. After a series of coups led by Mobutu, Lumumba was captured and executed, and Mobutu took power. Formerly Joseph-Desire Mobutu, he built a dictatorship that lasted decades, seeking to decolonize Zaire in favor of a more culturally authentic identity. He also took the name Mobutu Sese Seko, destroying any European location names in the country and encouraging African clothing and culture for everyone.
Rumble in the Jungle
President Mobutu Sese Seko agreed to host the big Ali and Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, and King promoted it as a back-to-Africa event. Ali said the phrase “Rumble in the Jungle” during a media-filmed training and the name just stuck. There was a three-day music festival that accompanied the event featuring James Brown, The Spinners, B.B. King, and African performers Miriam Makeba, TPOK Jazz, and Tabu Ley Rochereau.
A cut above Foreman’s eye during a sparring match pushed the fight back from its original date of September 25th to the new date of October 30th and caused the music festival and fight to be separated. While not many people from the states traveled to Africa during the live event and most of the 40,000 were locals who paid for $10 tickets, what the event lacked in real-time, it made up for in broadcasting.
The fight ended live at 4 am Zaire time to be rebroadcast on closed-circuit TV at 10 pm EST at more than 400 venues in the U.S., charging between $20 to $80. The fight grossed more than $60 million in venues and nearly $100 million total with about half a billion people around the globe viewing the fight.
Ali showed up aggressively in the first round, but it was his footwork that ultimately won the match. His famous “rope-a-dope” technique allowed him to dodge many of Foreman’s punches, Ali taking a beating in body punches from the skilled fighters. Still, his strategy worked, and Foreman tired himself out, Ali knocking Foreman out in the eighth round with a few combination hits.
Ali became the second man ever to reclaim the heavyweight title after boxer Floyd Patterson, and the match catapulted both Ali and Foreman to international stardom, becoming a pivotal moment in both athletes' careers. As the opposition to war decreased in the mid-70s and the NOI split into two branches after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, the stigma around Ali faded and he grew into an American hero and beloved celebrity.
When We Were Kings, the documentary of the Rumble in the Jungle match, was released in 1996 and Foreman eventually gained a piece of the heavyweight title again in 1994 at the age of 45.
Here’s why the Rumble in the Jungle was such an important boxing match. 1974 Rumble in the Jungle boxing match. Photo Courtesy of Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated