“For as long as I can remember he was always there in the background.”
Two months later and George Foreman was defending his World title against Ken Norton. This was the man that broke Ali’s jaw, took him the distance and beat him on points. Although Ali got his revenge in the rematch, it was a close fight and some thought Norton should have got the verdict.
Me and Dad did our usual and listened to the fight on the radio. I was convinced that Norton would put up a good show and last into the latter rounds. He was a big strong man with a granite chin who wouldn’t go down easily. Dad wasn’t so sure.
I was wrong. Foreman hit him so hard early in round two that Norton buckled and wobbled and tried to stay on his feet. But Forman kept on relentlessly and Norton went down twice before the referee decided to step in and stop it.
If me and dad were concerned about Ali before, now we were terrified. Foreman might just kill him.
Shortly afterwards it was announced that Ali would face Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire on 25th September 1974. The papers were calling it “The Rumble In The Jungle.” We couldn’t wait, but we had to, it was three months away.
The summer came and in August I had my first holiday away without mum and dad. A mate of mine was seventeen and his parents had a caravan at Selsey on the Sussex coast. He was seventeen and had just passed his driving test. His dad got him an old MK1 Cortina and so five of us headed off on holiday. We broke down before we even got out of London. Luckily one of the lads was an apprentice at Fords and with the help of the belt from my jeans, some chewing gum and an elastic band managed to get us going again.
What my mate had failed to tell any of us was that his girlfriend had rented the caravan next door. Her and four of her mates! I paired up quickly with a girl called Lisa. She was a year older than me and from Lewisham. For a week we were like boyfriend and girlfriend. This was the summer of “Kung Fu Fighting and Rock Your Baby.”
We spent most of the day in bed and in the evening we’d go out and drink and dance.
It was the best holiday I’d ever had. But when I got back dad had some bad news.
“It’s off. The fights been put back a month. Foreman got a cut in sparring so they’ve set a new date for October 30th.”
I didn’t swear much at that time, especially not in front of mum and dad, but I just couldn’t help it.
“Fuck, another month to wait.”
It might have been a long wait for me and dad, but Ali used it to his advantage. He toured the whole of Zaire making himself popular with the people. Everywhere he went they chanted his name. Soon the whole of Zaire was rooting for him. He encouraged them to shout “Ali. Bomaye”, which literally meant “Ali. Kill him.”
Once again the fight would be shown live at selected cinemas and this time our nearest venue was in Ilford. I was working full time and was earning reasonable money, so I decided to surprise dad and came home one evening with two tickets. Not just any old tickets. I’d asked my boss for an advance and bought two tickets in the front row! Dad’s face was a picture when I put them on the kitchen table. I think he was quite proud of his “little boy.”
As usual we were at the cinema waiting for the doors to open. We took our seats and waited for the undercard to begin. Once again it was a sell out and the majority of the audience were Ali supporters, all wanting him to win, but not really expecting it to happen.
Reg Gutteridge, a journalist from the London News and, for me and dad, the BEST boxing commentator ever, was doing the talking. “Tonight Ali has promised to do something special. He says he has a secret weapon. Let’s see what happens.”
The bell rang and Ali came out jabbing with his right hand and not his left, something he’d never done before. This confused Foreman and Ali scored well in the first couple of minutes but by the end of the round Foreman had adapted well. So round one to Ali.
In round two Ali did something that had never been seen before in boxing, especially at Heavyweight. He leaned back against the ropes, put his head into his chest and covered up with his arms, then encouraged George to hit him! Was he mad? Okay so Foreman could only hit his body and his arms but the punches would surely break his ribs. Foreman hit him with everything he had for a full thirty seconds, then Ali came back with a flurry of punches and moved away. This went on for the next three rounds. Ali taking punch after punch from Foreman and then throwing three or four of his own. I looked at dad.
“What’s he doing? Why is he letting Foreman hit him like that?”
“They’re not really scoring punches and he’s obviously trying to wear Foreman out. It’s risky, but it might just work.”
But Foreman dominated the fifth round. Throwing good solid accurate shots. But just before the bell rang Ali threw a number of punches that all landed cleanly and visibly shook Foreman, he looked tired when he went back to his corner.
Rounds six and seven saw Foreman throw more and more wild and desperate punches at Ali, most of them landing on arms and torso. Very few of them scoring points. Now Ali was taunting Foreman. Every time they were in a clinch you could hear him clearly saying “That all you got George?”
At the end of the seventh round Foreman went back to his corner looking a very tired man. Dad was on his feet.
“I think he’s got him.”
The bell sounded for round eight and Foreman came forward like he had in every round before, but his punches no longer had the same venom. He was an exhausted man. Then the thing that couldn’t possibly happen, happened!
Foreman had Ali on the ropes once again and was throwing wild rugged punches. Ali moved away quickly and as he did so threw a five punch combination quickly followed by a left hook that lifted Foreman’s head up only to be met with a crushing right hand from Ali. Foreman was off balance and exhausted. He crashed to the canvas.
He looked dazed and confused and rose to his feet at the count of nine. But too late, the referee had decided he’d had enough. It was over.
There was mayhem in the cinema. People were jumping up and down and shouting “Ali.Ali.Ali.”
I turned and hugged dad just as I has a little kid. A miracle had happened and we’d been there to witness it.
Even the commentator Reg Gutteridge couldn’t believe it. As the referee counted Foreman out he shouted “Oh my god. He’s won the title back at thirty-two!”
Me and dad were convinced that Ali would now retire as possibly the greatest Heavyweight the world had ever seen. There was no one left to beat. He’d dominated the Heavyweight division for a decade. We loved him and loved to see him fight but it was time to say goodbye.
But Ali had other plans….