Rumble that will never be silenced

By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online

In one of his rare, quieter moments Muhammad Ali once mused: "When I go, boxing could die." Sport's greatest prophet may never have been more prophetic. It is exactly 25 years since Ali's unprompted reflection, made as he prepared to rumble George Foreman in the jungle, and while boxing is not yet a corpse, the death rattles are heard more prominently by the day as farce follows fiasco in an art which Ali had ennobled to the point where his has become an impossible act to follow.

In one of his rare, quieter moments Muhammad Ali once mused: "When I go, boxing could die." Sport's greatest prophet may never have been more prophetic. It is exactly 25 years since Ali's unprompted reflection, made as he prepared to rumble George Foreman in the jungle, and while boxing is not yet a corpse, the death rattles are heard more prominently by the day as farce follows fiasco in an art which Ali had ennobled to the point where his has become an impossible act to follow.

The past few days have seen an orgy of Ali eulogies,understandably so as this weekend witnesses the silver anniversary of that epic battle. Just about every scribe who witnessed this enthralling slice of history, one of the truly defining sporting moments of the century - and many who did not - have been wallowing in personal recollections of that wondrous event. That we are knee-deep in Ali nostalgia is testimony to our affection for a man whose life, in and out of the ring, is a constant reminder that even his bad days were good and, by and large, what has followed in boxing has been so much dross.

I make no excuse for my own indulgence. I was there 25 years ago and the memory of that surreal night - actually it was closer to daybreak - remains etched indelibly in the consciousness.

There have been eight Olympics, numerous Commonwealth Games and World Cups and a host of other sporting occasions in many climes and all continents during some 40 years of scuffling as a sports writer. But no single moment will ever equal that of Ali's African dawn.

Those who were there had never experienced anything so bizarre, so emotional, so uplifting. Not to mention the gastronomic delights of the pre-fight banquet at N'Sele, one of President Mobutu's two palaces where we dined on grilled monkey and chocolate coated caterpillars without knowing what they were.

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 preacher who is still in there punching noses as well as bibles.

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.

But Ali was about to be swept to victory on a sea of adulation from a 70,000 crowd that must have made Mobutu envious and perhaps a little angry.

Maybe that was why the despot, who had succumbed to the sweet talking of a then unknown hustler named Don King to fund the fight to bring credibility to his regime and publicity to his nation, actually 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 and, disturbingly, his head, a riskridden strategy that only the bravest of men 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, dextrously rope-adoping until Foreman blew up like an old bull elephant. At that very moment Harry Carpenter was declaring to the viewing millions: "Surely Ali can't take any more of this - oh my God he's knocked him out. He's won the title back at 32." Foreman claimed later that he had been drugged, indeed he was, by a whipping right cross which numbed his senses.

As if in a thunderclap of applause the heavens opened over the 20th of May Stadium, built in a jungle clearing outside Kinshasa, 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 fucked 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) they chorused. Mud-smeared, rain-sodden posters of Mobutu littered what was left of the road sides. He was still their President but Muhammad Ali was their, indeed everyone's, Lion King. If only the king had counted his blessings and abdicated there and then.

Alas, Ali simply wasn't the retiring sort. His pride would never allow him to quit while he was ahead. More than any other figure in boxing history he needed to emerge physically and mentally intact to speak up and proclaim its virtues because of who he was. Ali has maintained a quiet dignity throughout his awful indisposition and has the respect of all, but what has happened to him is symptomatic of an activity that may now be damaged beyond ultimate repair.

Internationally, boxing is perceived with cynicism and, save on exceptional occasions, with disinterest as big fights disappear more frequently into the great vacuum in the Sky.

In this country it is virtually a minority sport marginalised by the media unless there is something unsavoury or sensational to sour further the sweet science.

Whenever trauma or tragedy occurs, the same tired old arguments are trotted out by the abolitionists, but boxing will not be banned, certainly not in the lifetime of a government which doesn't even seem to have the bottle to end blood sports involving animals let alone humans.

Anyway, there is no need to kill off boxing when it continues to write its own suicide notes. The probability remains that it will die of natural causes as social attitudes change, as Tyson becomes more tiresome and Naseem Hamed continues to perform more like a prat than a Prince.

Meanwhile most of us present in Zaire on 30 October 1974 can feel privileged to have watched the most gifted athlete of our time demonstrate why exactly he was, and always will be, The Greatest.

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