Ken Jones: Ali-Foreman 'Rumble in the Jungle' drama entitled to take poll position

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The Independent Football

Ever regret not seeing Don Bradman bat? Stanley Matthews dribble? Joe Louis throw a left hook? Juan Fangio drive? Feel cheated you never got to see Real Madrid in their '50s pomp, Lester Piggott ride, Arkle jump, Ben Hogan on the tee? Like to have seen Rocky Marciano fight, Jesse Owens sprint, Lew Hoad volley, John Charles head? Maybe you wish you could have seen Emile Zatopek run, Tom Finney on the wing, Denis Compton sweep?

All those are yesterday's roses. Faded dance cards in the attic. The memories of elderly men. Heirlooms of the mind. Old-timers watch the moderns, shrug, shake their heads and say, "Yeah, but you should have seen Keith Miller". Or Duncan Edwards. What brings this aching theme to mind is a poll recently conducted to set out the great sports events of the past 50 years in preferential order. Normally, I am not into this sort of thing. If somebody asks who or what was the best I make it a habit, a rule, to turn a deaf ear. Who can tell? It's a matter of personal opinion. And generational.

I didn't see the poll myself, but it cropped up at one of those reunions held at this time of the year when you get together with old colleagues to swap tales about this and that, and inevitably get round to comparing past and present. The way the poll came out - and you seldom get to know how many people vote in these things - the most momentous sports event of the period from 1953 onwards was the heavyweight championship fight that saw Muhammad Ali gain the title for a third time by knocking out George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, 29 years ago. No argument could be held out against this. "The Rumble in the Jungle" had everything. Drama, courage, uncertainty, earth-trembling.

I hesitate, but not for long, to mention England's triumph in the Rugby World Cup which will surely lead to a clean sweep at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards on Sunday, because it is bound to figure prominently in future assessments, although not on a universal basis.

At the risk of being drawn too deeply into a debate that could have no cast-iron conclusion, I stayed around long enough to hear some annoyance expressed over the high status held out for two comparatively recent events, Michael Owen's goal for England against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals and the last minute free-kick against Greece with which David Beckham secured England's place in last year's tournament. While Owen's goal fully launched his career, Beckham's effort was more significant in that it took the heat off Sven Goran Eriksson.

Significance, I think, is the key. Let's go back 50 years to the 6-3 defeat inflicted on England at Wembley by the Hungary of Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti and Sandor Kocsis. Revolutionary in their tactics and application, Hungary shocked English football out of its arrogant complacency, though not before another hammering, this time by 7-1 in Budapest eight months later. Thus it stands as one of the period's key events, certainly in the top 10.

Much the same can be said about England's success in the 1966 World Cup. If not properly built upon, it brought confidence and a renewal of faith. That England have since fallen short in major competitions gives it even greater significance.

Celtic's defeat of Internazionale in the 1967 European Cup final was a triumph for the great Jock Stein's belief that he could sweep away the dead hand of Italian football. Brazil's glorious success, a marriage of flair and organisation, in the 1970 World Cup set a standard that has never been equalled, and persuaded Alf Ramsey that they were beyond emulation.

Real Madrid's five consecutive victories in the European Cup, culminating in the 7-3 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960, provided impetus for the international development of club football.

For sheer drama there isn't much to match Manchester United's last-gasp success over Bayern Munich in the 1999 European Cup final. For sentiment alone, there is hardly anything to compare with the night in 1968 when Sir Matt Busby finally got his hands on the trophy 10 years after the Munich accident destroyed his best team.

You can go on and on like this, and people do. By way of thoughtful reflection, Roger Bannister's four-minute mile opened up a new frontier in middle-distance running. Michael Johnson's remarkable world record of 19.32 seconds for 200 metres at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics may stand forever. The emergence of Tiger Woods, especially his three major victories in 1990, opened up a new era in golf, raised standards and brought in huge prize money.

That's about all, except that it should be said the voters knew their onions when they put Ali-Foreman on top of the pile. Never mind the last 50 years, from a ringside seat it was the most powerful sports event of all time.