SPORTING HEROES; MUHAMMED ALI
By Steve Wade
Where to start with the great man? It started with me when as a thirteen-year old I first saw him on TV in replays of those gruelling, death defying fifteen round contests between himself and Joe Frazier. Then came the rumble in the jungle against George Foreman, who wasn’t the cuddly national treasure you see before you today but the most fearsome fighter on the planet who had dismantled both Frazier and Ken Norton inside two rounds before the fight, both of whom had taken Ali the full distance in previous meetings.
Experts genuinely feared for Ali’s safety. He was a huge underdog for the fight and no one gave him a realistic chance of winning. Even Ali himself, when all the bragging and screaming was done and in the more reflective moments before the fight knew that this could be the end for him.
Me? I was sixteen years old and had a ticket for a live action seat at the Leicester Square cinema in London. I think my Dad treated me! The atmosphere was electric, I can remember that and the excitement of being out in the middle of the night to watch a hero live on screen.
The fight started as we all expected in the first round, with Ali moving and scoring and keeping away from Foreman and his knockout punches. Then, beginning in the second round, to the surprise of his corner, us and probably himself he backed off against the ropes, allowing Foreman to come at him whilst covering up, clinching and counter punching, all the while taunting Foreman to keep coming. Getting increasingly frustrated, Foreman was throwing wilder and wilder punches and being less effective as he did so, all the while using up all his energy in the stifling heat.
And then, in the eighth round, it happened. Ali saw his chance and dropped Foreman with a combination in the middle of the ring that won him the fight. Of all the great sporting occasions I have ever seen, live or otherwise, I never felt anything like it. The place erupted. People were dancing on the seats and I was ecstatic. Ali had that effect on people worldwide, they just loved him.
Foreman, who was a great fighter himself and finished up being one of Ali’s biggest supporters and friends in later life, said the following;
“I thought Ali was just one more knockout victim until, about the seventh round, I hit him hard on the Jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear, ‘that all you got George?’ I realised that this ain’t what I thought it was.”
The fight was watched by an estimated one billion people on live and closed circuit TV, which at the time was a quarter of the world population.
I followed Ali’s career to the end, looking backwards and forwards, right through the killing machine that was the third fight against Frazier in the Philippines and the awful sight of the fight against Larry Holmes. He was already thirty-two on that night in Zaire and when you look back at his fights before the ban for ignoring the draft, already past his very best. He wasn’t perfect, not by any stretch but on that night, at that moment, he was the Greatest.