Norman Mailer on Muhammad Ali’s miracle of a fight
Ali prepares to train at the Salle de Congrès at Mobutu’s presidential complex outside of Kinshasa, the venue where his training alternated with Foreman’s. They would regularly see each other as their schedules crossed and both camps made every effort to spy on the opposing fighter. Howard L. Bingham was usually by Ali’s side. Photo by Neil Leifer.
Ali absorbed a significant amount of punishment on the ropes. His own corner, unaware of his tactics, reacted with panic and urged him to move around the ring. They feared the worst: Ali being knocked out for the first time ever. Photo: Howard L. Bingham
Thursday, five days before the bout, Ali gave a typical seminar. “This fight is going to be not only the largest boxing eee-vent, but it will prove to be the largest eee-vent in the history of the world. It will be the greatest upset of which anyone has ever heard, and to those who are ignorant of boxing, it will seem like the greatest miracle. This is because you here who write about boxing are ignorant of what you try to describe. You writers are the real fools and illiterates. I am going to demonstrate—so you will have something new for your columns—why I cannot be defeated by George Foreman and will create the greatest upset in the history of boxing which you by your ignorance and foolishness as writers have actually created. It is your fault,” he said, mouthing his words for absolute enunciation, “that the boxing public knows so little and therefore believes George Foreman is great and I am finished. I must therefore demonstrate to you by scientific evidence how wrong you are.”
“Angelo,” he said to Angelo Dundee, “hand me those records, will you,” and he began to read a list of fighters he had fought. The history of Heavyweight boxing in the last thirteen years was evoked by the list. His first seven fights were with pugilists never well known, names like Herb Siler, Tony Esperti, and Donnie Fleeman. “Nobodies,” said Ali in comment. By his eighth fight, he was in with Alonzo Johnson, “a ranked contender,” then Alex Miteff, “a ranked contender,” Willi Besmanoff, “a ranked contender.” Now Ali made a sour face. “At a time when George Foreman was having his first street fights, I was already fighting ranked contenders, boxers of skill, sluggers of repute, dangerous men! Look at the list: Sonny Banks, Billy Daniels, Alejandro Lavorante, Archie Moore! Doug Jones, Henry Cooper, Sonny Liston! I fought them all. Patterson, Chuvalo, Cooper again, Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams—a dangerous Heavyweight. Ernie Terrell, twice the size of Foreman—I whupped him . . . To the press I say this,” said Ali. “I fought twenty ranked contenders before Foreman had his first fight!” Ali sneered. How could the press in its ignorance begin to comprehend such boxing culture? “Now, let Angelo read the list of Foreman’s fights.” As the names went by, Ali did not stop making faces. “Don Waldheim.” “A nobody.” “Fred Askew.” “A nobody.” “Sylvester Dullaire.” “A nobody.” “Chuck Wepner.” “Nobody.” “John Carroll.” “Nobody.” “Cookie Wallace.” “Nobody.” “Vernon Clay,” said Dundee. Ali hesitated. “Vernon Clay—he might be good.” The press laughed. They laughed again at Ali’s comment for Gary “Hobo” Wiler—“a tramp.” Now came a few more called “nobody.” Ali said in disgust, “If I fought these bums, you people would put me out of the fight game.” Abruptly Bundini shouted, “Next week, we be Champ again.” “Shut up,” said Ali, slapping him on the head, “it’s my show.”
Local children provided an enduring human counterpoint to the machinations around the Foreman–Ali fight. In the foreground young boys mix Chinese kung fu gestures with those of the boxing world. Behind them on the two flanking billboards President Mobutu depicts himself atop a pyramid of champions superimposed on a map of Zaire. Photo by Neil Leifer.
After the fullest list of Foreman’s fights had been delivered, Ali gave the summation. “Foreman fought a bum a month. In all, George Foreman fought five men with names. He stopped all five, but none took the count of ten. Of the twenty-nine name fighters I met, fifteen stayed down for the count of ten.” With all the pride of having worked up a legal brief well organized and well delivered, Ali now addressed the jury. “I’m a boxing scholar. I’m a boxing scientist—this is scientific evidence. You ignore it at your peril if you forget that I am a dancing master, a great artist.”…
“I say to you in the press, you are impressed with Foreman because he looks like a big Black man and he hits a bag so hard. He cuts off the ring! I am going to tell you that he cannot fight. I will demonstrate that the night of the fight. You will see my ripping left and my shocking right cross. You are going to get the shock of your life. Because now you are impressed with Foreman. But I let you in on a secret. Colored folks scare more white folks than they scare colored folks. I am not afraid of Foreman, and that you will discover.”
Next day, however, Ali varied the routine. There was no press conference. Instead, a drama took place in the ring. But then the fact that Ali was boxing today was in itself an event. In the last week and a half, he had sparred only three times, a light schedule. Of course, Ali had been training for so long his stablemates were growing old with him. Indeed, there was only one left, Roy Williams, the big dark gentle fighter who at Deer Lake had acted as if it were sacrilege to strike his employer. Now he was introduced by Bundini to the audience of several hundred Africans: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Roy Williams, Heavyweight Champ of Pennsylvania. He’s taller than George Foreman, he’s heavier than George Foreman, his reach is longer, he hits harder, and he’s more intelligent than George Foreman.” Bundini was the father of hyperbole.
His remarks were translated by a Zairois interpreter to the Black audience. They giggled and applauded. Ali now led them in a chant , “Ali boma yé, Ali boma yé,” which translated as “Kill him, Ali”—an old fight cry when all is said—and Ali conducted his people through the chant, but strictly, laying firm strokes on the air, a choirmaster with a boy scout chorus, stern, not fooling, proud of his chickens, except a smile seemed to come off the act. Everybody was happy about it and the cry was without menace, more like a high school crowd crying “Slay Sisley High,” a testimonial to Ali’s good spirits. He looked eighteen this morning and he got ready to spar with Roy Williams.
The main event: October 29, 1974. “Now the word came down the line from the stadium outside. ‘Ali in the ring, Ali in the ring.’ Solemnly, Bundini handed Ali the white African robe which the fighter had selected.” Photo by Neil Leifer.
They hardly boxed, however. After weeks and months of working together, a fighter and his sparring partner are an old married couple. They make comfortable love. That is all right for old married couples, but the dangers are obvious for a fighter. He gets used to living below the level of risk in the ring. So Ali dispensed today with all idea of boxing. He wrestled through an entire round with Williams. To the beat of Big Black on the floor beating on his conga drum, one sullen throbbing rhythm, Ali grappled up and down the ring. “I’m going to tie George up and walk with him, walk with him,” Ali said in a loud throttled voice through his mouthpiece. “Yes, I’m going to walk with him.” Occasionally, he would fall back to the ropes and let Williams pound him, then he would wrestle some more. “We’re going to walk with him.” When the round was over, Ali yelled to the side of the hall, “Archie Moore, number one spy, you tell George I’m running. I’m going to work him until he’s stupid and then the torture begins. War! War!” Ali shouted, and rushed out swinging like an archetype of determination, only to go slack and wave to Williams to pound him on the ropes… What a battle was to follow…
October 29, 1974: He was all alone in the ring, the Challenger on call for the Champion, the Prince waiting for the Pretender, and unlike other fighters who wilt in the long minutes before the titleholder will appear, Ali seemed to be taking royal pleasure in his undisputed possession of the space. He looked unafraid and almost on the edge of happiness, as if the discipline of having carried himself through the two thousand nights of sleeping without his title after it had been taken from him without ever losing a contest—a frustration for a fighter doubtless equal in impact to writing A Farewell to Arms and then not being able to publish it—must have been a biblical seven years of trial through which he had come with the crucial part of his honor, his talent, and his desire for greatness still intact, and light came off him at this instant. His body had a shine like the flanks of a thoroughbred. He looked fully ready to fight the strongest meanest man to come along in Heavyweight circles in many years, maybe the worst big man of all, and while the Prince stood alone in his ring, and waited out theminutes for the Champion to arrive and had his thoughts, whatever they were, and his private communion with Allah, however that might feel, while he stood and while he shuffled and while he shadowboxed the air, the Lord Privy Seal, Angelo Dundee from Miami, went methodically from ring post to ring post and there in full view of ringside and the stadium just as methodically loosened each of the four turnbuckles on each post which held the tension of each of the four ropes, and did it with a spoke and a wrench he must have put in his little carrying bag back at Nsele and transported on the bus and carried from the dressing room to this ring. And when the ropes were slack to his taste, loose enough for his fighter to lean way back, he left the ring and returned to the corner. Nobody had paid any particular attention to him.
Foreman was still in his dressing room. Later Plimpton learned a detail from his old friend Archie Moore. “Just before going out to the ring, Foreman joined hands with his boxing trust—Dick Sadler, Sandy Saddler, and Archie—in a sort of prayer ritual they had practiced (for every fight) since Foreman became Champion in Jamaica,” Plimpton wrote. “Now they were holding hands again in Zaire, and Archie Moore, who had his head bowed, found himself thinking that he should pray for Muhammad Ali’s safety. Here’s what he said: ‘I was praying, and in great sincerity, that George wouldn’t kill Ali. I really felt that was a possibility.’” So did others.
Foreman arrived in the ring. He was wearing red velvet trunks with a white stripe and a blue waistband. The colors of the American flag girded his middle and his shoes were white. He looked solemn, even sheepish, like a big boy who as Archie said “truly doesn’t know his own strength.” The letters GF stood out in embossed white cloth from the red velvet of his trunks. GF—Great Fighter. The Referee, Zack Clayton, Black and much respected in his profession, had been waiting. George had time to reach his corner, shuffle his feet, huddle with the trust, get the soles of his shoes in resin, and the fighters were meeting in the center of the ring to get instructions. It was the time for each man to extort a measure of fear from the other. Liston had done it to all his opponents until he met Ali who, then Cassius Clay at the age of twenty-two, glared back at him with all the imperative of his high-destiny guts. Foreman, in turn, had done it to Frazier and then to Norton. A big look, heavy as death, oppressive as the closing of the door of one’s tomb.
To Foreman, Ali now said (as everybody was later informed), “You have heard of me since you were young. You’ve been following me since you were a little boy. Now, you must meet me, your master!”—words the press could not hear at the time, but Ali’s mouth was moving, his head was twelve inches from Foreman’s, his eyes were on the other. Foreman blinked, Foreman looked surprised as if he had been impressed just a little more than he expected. He tapped Ali’s glove in a move equal to saying, “That’s your round. Now we start.”
Norman Mailer (1923–2007) was one of the 20th century’s greatest and most influential writers, as well as one of America’s most renowned and controversial literary figures. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author of a dozen novels and 20 works of nonfiction, he also wrote stage plays, screenplays, television miniseries, hundreds of essays, two books of poetry, and a collection of short stories.