Exactly 30 years ago there was a Rumble in the Jungle. It was my stomach. I had just bitten into a stringy piece of meat at a reception given by the president of Zaire at his palace at N'Sele, on the outskirts of the capital, Kinshasa.
A passing waiter mischievously enquired if I had enjoyed the grilled monkey and offered another Zairean treat as dessert. A dish of chocolate-coated caterpillars. It seemed impolite, and possibly unwise, to decline the hospitality of one of Africa's most odious despots.
Perhaps it was because he wanted to portray a different image of himself to the world that President Mobuto Sese Seko had allowed himself to be seduced by an equally wily and ruthless ex-con from Cleveland, Ohio, into bank-rolling the event that was to change sporting history.
Norman Mailer wrote a whole book about it, called simply The Fight. Yet no better was The Fight captured than in the documentary film When We Were Kings (in which yours truly is among the extras, notebook in hand, listening to one of Muhammad Ali's endless orations). The truth is there was only one King, and his name was Don.
This shock-haired hustler, ex-numbers racketeer and latter-day Bush buddy had emerged from nowhere to engineer the most bizarre and arguably the most memorable of sporting events.
These past few days have seen an orgy of reminiscences about Ali's epic battle with George Foreman on 30 October 1974. Just about everyone who witnessed this enthral-ling slice of history, one of the truly defining sporting moments of the age - and many who did not - has been wallowing in personal recollections of that wondrous spectacle, so I make no excuse for my own indulgence. I was there, and the memory of that surreal night - actually it was closer to daybreak - remains etched indelibly in the consciousness.
There have been 10 Olympic Games, numerous Commonwealth Games and World Cups and a host of other sporting occasions in many climes and all continents during some 40-odd years of scuffling as a sports writer. But no single moment will ever equal that of Ali's African dawn.
It is easy to recall the triumph, much harder to register the tragedy that now engulfs Ali, whose famously quick-step shuffle has become a distressing slow wobble in the grim grip of Parkinson's. Equally it is impossible to reconcile the ogreish Foreman, sullen of mien and marbled of body, with the pudgy, amiable Uncle George of today, a part-time preacher who is still threatening to punch more noses at 55 while he promotes his lean, mean grilling machines, super salesmanship which has brought him a painless profit of $115 million, half of which he has given to charity.
Like the local cuisine, that part of Africa did not appeal much even to those who had their roots on the Dark Continent. Shaded by a huge tree, Dick Sadler, Foreman's ebullient trainer, confided in us: "Ah sure am damn glad my grandaddy caught that slave ship."
Archie Moore, then Foreman's henchman, was later to recall that he feared for Ali's life. "I smell death," he told one of Ali's team before the fight. It may well have been in the nostrils, for a month or so before the fight took place, President Mobutu took steps to curb Kinshasa's renowned crime rate, lest it attracted adverse publicity while the world's media was in attendance. Forty villains were rounded up and publicly hanged from trees in the city centre. Consequently no one's pocket was picked as Ali was swept to victory on a sea of adulation from a 70,000 crowd in a floodlit stadium built in a jungle clearing. Mobutu must have been envious and perhaps a little angry at the adoration of the 32-year-old Ali, which may have been why he stayed away.
Instead, his dominating portrait became a giant backdrop for the drama that unfolded. Ali's fight plan defied every known logic. He didn't dance, he didn't run, instead he rolled, clutched and taunted: "George, that your best shot? You punch like a sissy."
As Foreman flailed, pummelled and panted, Ali absorbed the blows on his elbows, forearms, ribs, and, disturbingly, his head, a risk-ridden strategy that only the bravest of men, which he was, would employ.
"Don't play with the sucker, don't play," urged Ali's corner-man, Angelo Dundee. But that night Ali listened to no one but himself, dexterously rope-a-doping until Foreman blew up like an old bull elephant. Ali not only used the rope trick - they had been surreptitiously slackened by Dundee - but invoked the same philosophy he used to win the title from another monster of the ring, Sonny Liston. "The only way to beat a bully is be a bigger bully."
Foreman claimed later that he had been drugged; indeed he was, by a whipping right cross in the eighth round which numbed his senses.
As if in a thunderclap of applause, the heavens opened over the 20th of May Stadium, and the most spectacular of electrical storms cascaded from the heavens. Within minutes seats, telephones and cables were being swept away in a raging torrent. It was 6am.
Four hours later, Ali lounged in an armchair in his villa overlooking the grassy, swollen banks of what was then the Zaire River, smiled, and uncharacteristically swore. "Ah sure done f***** up a lot of minds." He sure did, not least Foreman's. Big George ended up seeking solace from a succession of shrinks, and finally from God.
As we drove back to Kinshasa through streets that had become rivulets, happy youngsters splashed and sparred in playful parody of their hero. "Ali Boma-ye, Ali Boma-ye (Ali kill him, Ali kill him)."
Mud-smeared, rain-sodden posters of Mobutu littered what was left of the roadsides. He was still their president, but Muhammad Ali was now their Lion King, and for ever The Greatest.
I confess I had tipped Foreman to win, but was happy to eat my words. They tasted rather better than the monkey.Reuse content