Was Muhammad Ali the Greatest? Part 5 (by Jeff Burns)

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The following article is a dedicated contribution from Jeff Burns.

Son of Africa

Both the champion and his challenger arrived in Kinshasa some three or four weeks before the duel, under promoter Don King's instructions to promote the fight which was to be relayed 'live' all around the world by satellite. Ali made the most of his time portraying himself as the 'Son of Africa.' He was clearly going to attract the support of the locals come fight night whilst 'Big George' became alienated and isolated. It became clear to all that Ali was way ahead in the popularity stakes.

To make matters worse for the champion he sustained a cut-eye in training and the fight was postponed for one month to 31st October 1974. The champion intended to continue his training in the States but promoter King insisted he remain in Kinshasa.

George Foreman at the weigh-in

The stage was set for the 'Rumble in the Jungle.'

The fight, which was relayed by satellite all around the world, began with Ali taking the initiative and surprising the champion with his early aggression. The challenger was taking liberties catching Foreman with right hand leads to the head - a risky venture for an orthodox boxer especially in the early rounds of a fight. The champion returned to his corner at the end of round one shaken and surprised by Ali's early tactics.

The challenger changed tack from round two and spent the rest of the fight with his back to the ropes encouraging Foreman in. The ploy worked and in round eight Ali knocked his exhausted opponent out with a right hand to be crowned heavyweight champion of the World for the second time. The new champion had succeeded with his fight strategy which he named "rope a dope" and throughout the fight the partisan crowd chanted 'Ali boom aye' which meant 'Ali kill him.'

Ali defended his newly won title by stopping Chuck Wepner in the 15th and final round in March 1975, halted big hitting Ron Lyle in the 11th round and was taken the full distance of 15 rounds, for the second time, by Joe Bugner in the humidity of Kuala Lumpur.

His fourth defence of the title would be in Manila in a 'rubber match' against Joe Frazier in a fight that was titled by promoter Don King as 'The Thriller in Manila?'

Ali cruelly taunted his challenger with his slogan, "I will whip the gorilla in the Thriller in Manila." This was a jibe that caused great offence to Frazier, which was displayed in the ferocity of his assault on the champion's title. The two warriors, probably both past their best, fought each other into a state of sheer exhaustion with relentless attacks by both boxers and neither willing to give ground.

The nearest thing to dying - Muhammad Ali

Coming into round fifteen Frazier's cornerman Eddie Futch decided that the nearly blinded Frazier could not continue and halted the contest. Ali himself was thoroughly exhausted and described this fight as 'the nearest thing to dying.' Amazingly he fought another 10 times over the next five years. Hindsight would have warned both boxers that this should really have been the end of both boxer's careers.

Ali defended his title four times in 1976. He knocked out Belgian Jean Pierre Coopmans in five rounds, out-pointed Jimmy Young over 15 rounds, then knocked out British Commonwealth and European Champion and Doncaster's ex-paratrooper Richard Dunn in five rounds. He then won the rubber against Ken Norton by a narrow but unanimous point's victory.

Ali now 35 years of age successfully defended his title by outpointing Argentine Alfredo Evangelista by unanimous decision in May 1977 and returned to Madison Square Garden where he outscored KO specialist Ernie Shavers over fifteen rounds.

Most of Ali's supporters were now calling for him to retire!

The ageing Ali in his most recent fights was overweight and lethargic, doing just enough to win decisions by fairly slender margins. On 15th February 1978 Ali lost his title to eight-fight novice Leon Spinks, who like Ali was Olympic light heavyweight gold medallist, on points over 15 rounds in Las Vegas. Most of Ali's supporters were now calling on him to retire, it was very evident that his best days were long behind him. Muhammad had other ideas, back to the gym and up for his early morning roadwork the self ordained 'greatest' prepared in earnest for a return fight with Leon Spinks in an attempt to become the first heavyweight in boxing history to win the title three times.

In 1978 Ali made history by winning the heavyweight title for the third time.

On 15th September 1978 Ali once again made history by winning the World heavyweight title for the third time by winning a unanimous decision by a wide margin in a return encounter against Spinks in front of 63,350 spectators at the Superdome in New Orleans. After the fight and to the relief and satisfaction of his many supporters Muhammad Ali announced his retirement and relinquished the championship.

Foolishly believed he was still the greatest!

After 17 months out of the ring the 38-year-old Muhammad Ali, whilst missing the accolades of his fans and foolishly believing he was still the greatest, challenged the new World heavyweight champion Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas on 2nd October 1980. Holmes unbeaten in 35 professional contests won every round before the ex-champion’s corner mercifully retired him at the end of the 10th round. Holmes who had been a great fan of Ali’s and was once his sparring partner was calling on referee Richard Greene to stop the fight much earlier.

Sadly, another 14 months went by before Ali turned out for his swan song and weighing in at just under 17st he lost a unanimous decision against Canadian based Jamaican Trevor Berbick.

Read More: Was Muhammad Ali the Greatest? The Answer (by Jeff Burns)

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