For years I had been meaning to get round to reading Norman Mailer’s The Fight but somehow other books kept diverting me away. Finally, a couple of months ago I bought it to read on my Kindle on my commute to work in London. I had watched the October 1974 boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, many times on YouTube and had been impressed with Mailer’s commentary on the fight in the Academy Award winning 1997 documentary When We Were Kings, so it was with much excitement and anticipation that I began to read his book length take on the fight.
A word of warning at the outset: in this nineteen chapter book, the actual description of the fight does not begin until chapter thirteen. Don’t let that put you off though. Mailer was a giant of twentieth century American literature and his observations on the build up to the fight and his encounters with the characters surrounding Ali and Foreman, including Bundini Brown, Don King and not least, President Mobuto of Zaire, are fascinating and add much colour to the background of the fight.
George Foreman is such a jolly and kindly fellow today that it is easy to forget just how terrifying his reputation was back in 1974. He had knocked down Joe Frazier six times before stopping him in the 2nd round in 1973 and had destroyed Ken Norton also in just the 2nd round at the beginning of 1974. And both Frazier and Norton had beaten Ali on points. As Mailer notes: “Each time Foreman knocked a man out, frustration showed on his face. Foreman looked like he still wanted to kill them.”
Ali at this time was thirty-two years of age and widely regarded as being past his prime. He had cruelly and unjustly had his championship taken away from him in 1967 after refusing to be drafted into the army for the Vietnam war and had been banned from boxing for three and half years – years when he should have been in the pinnacle of his boxing career. Now, seven years later, while he was clearly eager to regain the Championship, boxing commentators openly questioned whether he was still as quick with his hands and able to dance around the ring as he had so dazzlingly been able to do in his younger years. How would an older and slower Ali be able to avoid being hit by Foreman’s murderous punches?
Mailer was in Ali’s dressing room just before the fight and he paints a gloomy picture indeed. All those around Ali were clearly afraid of the imminent encounter and worried about Ali’s safety. Ali’s personal trainer, Ferdie Pacheco, had quietly booked a helicopter in case they needed to fly Ali out for emergency hospital treatment. The only person who seemed unafraid was Ali himself who said. “What’s there to be afraid about? This ain’t nothing but just another day in the dramatic life of Muhammad Ali. Why should I be afraid of Foreman? My God controls the universe.”
Ali certainly saw a bigger picture. Mailer notes that Ali saw himself as a tool in God’s plan. He would create history by beating Foreman against all the odds. He would then use his resulting fame and influence for the benefit of poorer black people. To this end Ali did not merely rely on his prayers, but trained appropriately. Mailer even went running with Ali late one night until he ran out of breath and had to walk back to Ali’s camp alone in the dark. He tells us that his heart started beating much louder and faster when he heard what was unmistakably the roar of a lion. Later that morning when Mailer shared this story with other colleagues from the press who were there to cover the fight, they laughed and pointed out that Ali’s camp was very close to the zoo.
And on to the fight itself. Mailer was sitting in the second row just behind the photographers and live radio and TV commentators. Just before the fight begins, he describes the posture of the two mighty warriors.
“Ali pressed his elbows to his side, closed his eyes and offered a prayer. Foreman turned his back. In the thirty seconds before the fight began, he grasped the ropes in his corner and bent over from the waist so that his big and powerful buttocks were presented to Ali. He flexed in this position so long it took on a kind of derision as though to declare: “My farts to you.” He was still in such a pose when the bell rang.”
It is a joy to read Mailer’s account of the fight. His round by round commentary is intelligent and vivid. Here is a taster from the beginning of the very first round:
“[Ali] drove a lightning-strong right straight as a pole into the stunned centre of Foreman’s head, the unmistakable thwomp of a high-powered punch. A cry went up. Whatever else happened, Foreman had been hit. No opponent had cracked George this hard in years and no sparring partner had dared to. Foreman charged in rage. Ali compounded the insult. He grabbed the Champion around the neck and pushed his head down, wrestled it down crudely and decisively to show Foreman he was considerably rougher than anybody warned, and relations had commenced.”
In the second round, Ali introduced the world to his Rope-a-Dope technique whereby he would lay on the ropes and seemingly allowed Foreman to come in and hit him. At the time, the commentators thought this showed that an older Ali was simply not able to keep up with George Foreman and was inevitably going to be worn down. Mailer writes that Joe Frazier – who was commentating on the fight for an American network, kept asking “For what reason is he on the ropes? Get off the ropes!”
For those who haven’t seen or heard about what then happens in the fight I won’t reveal any more…apart from saying that Ali triumphs! We are fortunate that the open mouthed and flabbergasted reaction of Norman Mailer and (on the left) boxing journalist George Plimpton to Ali’s knockdown of the mighty George Foreman has been captured in a wonderful photograph.
Over twenty years later, Ali – now debilitated by Parkinson’s and barely able to whisper – would be asked what the biggest thrill of his career was. His response: “Zaire. Got my title back. In Africa.”
Mailer’s book rises admirably to the occasion and is a splendid reminder of an encounter that will long be remembered fondly and with much love by all who have been fortunate enough to watch The Fight. Ali somehow lifted us all up.
Now is the time
Here is the mountaintop
When one man climbs
The rest are lifted up
(When We Were Kings, Brian McKnight and Diana King)