When Muhammad Ali became 'The Greatest'

'Rumble in the Jungle’ and ‘Thrilla in Manila’ rank among the finest fights in boxing’s history.

In this October 1, 1975 file photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali connects with a right to challenger Joe Frazier in the ninth round of their title fight in Manila, Philippines.   -  AP

On October 30, 1974, Ali stunned the world of boxing by knocking out the seemingly indestructible George Foreman in Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The author Thomas Hauser best captured the impact of that moment when he said that it “inspired more global joy than any other athletic achievement in history.’’ That may have even been an under-statement, for such were the worldwide celebrations that followed.

A year later, on October 1, 1975, ‘The Greatest’ outlasted his greatest opponent after 14 brutal rounds of gladiatorial severity in what was billed as ‘The Thrilla in Manila’. Ali later said that it was the closest he had come to death.

“You get tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. I was thinking in the end. Why am I doing this?’’ Ali was quoted as saying the morning after the Manila fight in his hotel suite by Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated.

Total respect for Frazier

“What am I doing here against this beast of a man? It’s so painful. I must be crazy. I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I am gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.’’

For all the taunting and teasing, for all the insults that Ali consistently threw at ‘Smokin Joe’ from the beginning of their epic three-fight (Ali won the second and third) rivalry, there was no boxer that Ali had more respect for in his entire career.

After Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, threw in the towel at the end of Round 14, Ali hailed his opponent as the “greatest fighter of all time, next to me.’’

If those two October slug-fests rank among the finest in the sport’s history, then a lot of things contributed to making them very, very special.

The most powerful nation on earth was shamefacedly pulling out of a war in which it was never going to triumph, in Vietnam. And Americans craved for any kind of diversion that would help them forget the folly of a faraway conflict from which some of their most courageous young countrymen were returning, not as heroes, but looking like zombies in need of serious psychiatric care.

Inspirational icon

And Ali, as a celebrated conscientious objector, was at once, not just hero and villain but a demi-god among African-Americans and anti-war protesters in colleges across the country — as well as to millions of youngsters around the globe.

Put off once because Foreman had cut his eye in training, ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in the brutal dictator Mobutu’s impoverished capital city of Kinshasa saw many critics hit out at Ali — apparently in his own cause — for signing what they thought was a suicidal contract to fight a man whose arms looked like boulders supporting an over-bridge.

Many feared for the 32-year-old Ali’s safety as he trained in the forests of Zaire, holed up in a small village about 80 km from Kinshasa. Going into the ring, he was a 40-1 outsider with the bookmakers; and that’s as bad as it can get in a one-on-one contest of any kind.

But Ali, steeped in intense self-belief, had his own plans. And they became clear as the fight made its way towards rounds four, five and six. Leaning on the ropes, his back bent like a question mark, the great man soaked up everything that Foreman threw at him.

Then, when the moment came, Ali grabbed it. As Foreman began to visibly tire, his feet heavy, and his mind a mess, Ali moved in for the kill and felled his opponent with a single right, without even bothering to follow up with a couple of more punches even as Foreman slumped.

Brutal battle to the finish

A year on, in Manila, Ali and Frazier found new vistas in their own heart and soul; in an extraordinary contest in which boundaries were pushed back to the very limits, the two men went at each other as if they were ready to lay down their lives on that day. It seemed that nothing short of that would stop either of them.

Once again Ali proved what a resilient fighter he was; he stood up to the Frazier barrage time and time again. And finally, in the 13th round, Frazier’s mouthpiece parted company with him and went flying and Ali pummelled him into submission in the 14th round.

“What a great fighter he is,’’ said Frazier of a pugilist whose physical courage and tactical flexibility were unmatched among his peers. Great fighter or the greatest of all time?

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