Following his defeat to Muhammad Ali in the legendary Rumble in the Jungle event in 1974, George Foreman was broken and beaten. Now, 45 years on, he’s stronger than ever and helping other boxers find hope outside the ring.
It was 4.30 in the morning, October 30, 1974, the temperature already nearly 27 degrees, and the humidity almost 90%. Yet the outdoor Stade du 20 Mai in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), was heaving with more than 60 000 spectators. Chants of “Ali, bomaye” (“Ali, kill him”), reverberated throughout the venue. The crowd had been waiting for this moment for weeks – the Rumble in the Jungle.
The epic fight between former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, then 32, and the 25-year-old current champion, George Foreman, was predicted to end with Ali boxed into retirement by the power of the younger man. Instead, despite Ali taking what appeared to be a savage beating, his tactic of absorbing punches off the ropes and letting his opponent get tired – a move dubbed as “rope-a-dope” because only a “dope” would pull such a move – helped the underdog spring into life in the eighth round. With an almighty combo of powerful and confident blows, he defeated Foreman. “Muhammad Ali has done it. The great man has done it,” screamed a commentator. “This is an incredible scene. The crowd is going wild. Muhammad Ali has won by a knockdown. The thing they said was impossible, he has done.”
Following his shock defeat, Foreman was deflated, later saying in an interview, “For years afterwards I would agonize, ‘How could this happen?’ That night I lost everything I ever was. It was the most devastating event in my life as an athlete. I was not even a man no more.” He retired from the sport three years later.
Now aged 70, the two-time world heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist has a different take on the historic event. “I look back on the Rumble in the Jungle as probably the strongest year I’ve ever had,” says Foreman, now a minister and the father of seven daughters and five sons (all named George). “I was the best boxer I could be. Physically, I could run faster, further than I ever could have. So, I look back at that as a good moment that I should have enjoyed more.”
Ali and Foreman were each paid US $5 million for the fight that was organized by the infamous boxing promotor Don King. The money was guaranteed by Zaire’s then military dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who hoped the attention of the match – which was at first going to be called “From Slaveship to Championship” – would help bring tourism to his country. “I was devastated,” continues Foreman about his loss, before laughing, “But the reward was, I got home and I had $5 million in the bank. So, I was able to recover pretty good with that.”
Even though more than a billion people worldwide tuned in to watch the fight on TV, Foreman says he and Ali were unaware of the colossal fanfare. “Muhammad Ali and George Foreman – the whole world talked about it, but we were just in this little place in Africa,” he shares. “We rarely ventured out. For us, it was like driving down to the gym every day and trying to cope with the heat. The hype was after when they made movies and wrote books – then you start to enjoy that part of it.”
Much of the obsession surrounding the fight was down to the pre-match trash talking, with Ali in particular spitting curses like an urban poet. Most famously, “I’ve wrestled with alligators / I’ve tussled with a whale / I done handcuffed lightning / and throw thunder in jail / You know I’m bad, just last week I murdered a rock / Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick / I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.” It was all part of the showmanship, with Foreman sharing that he and Ali became great friends years later. “We learned from each other,” he says of his relationship with his greatest opponent. “We learned that in a boxing match the bell rings, you embrace it, and then the boxing ends. It doesn’t carry on in life. There’s nothing to be angry about.”
Does he think they would’ve been better fighters if they had had the mod cons of today, including special nutritionists? He shrugs his shoulders with incredulity. “No. Not at all,” he huffs. “That fight is still being talked about. It’s done and no one else has been able to top that. No nutritionist could’ve made it more important. The earth needs to get shattered before you can top that again.”
Sitting in a suite at the Encore At Wynn hotel in Las Vegas, the 1.92m Foreman still has an air of menace about him that makes you think he could shatter the earth again right now if he wanted to. He’s in town with a host of other former champs, including Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Vitali Klitschko, and Oscar De la Hoya, for the Hublot and World Boxing Council (WBC) Night of Champions gala dinner. The event is in aid of the WBC José Sulaimán Boxers fund. “Established in 2012 in conjunction with Hublot, the fund aims to protect athletes’ health, safety and wellbeing,” explains Hublot CEO, Ricardo Guadalupe. “Since its creation, it has raised and distributed more than $2.4 million to retired boxers with financial and medical hardships for housing, living expenses, and medical costs.”
José Sulaimán, dubbed the father of boxing, was a Mexican official of Lebanese and Syrian descent and president of the World Boxing Council. After his passing in 2014, he was succeeded by his son Mauricio Sulaimán. “All I care about is to keep his legacy intact,” says Sulaimán. “My father suffered so much seeing those great heroes of the ring living in poverty and without anyone to look after them. The fund is one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of boxing.” The evening was a knockout success, raising $1.2 million through an auction of sporting memorabilia and tickets to the Canelo Alvarez and Daniel Jacobs fight, which was sold for $75 000. The night also honored the boxing hall of famers, awarding them the Hublot Big Bang Unico WBC timepiece that comes in two styles and features a green alligator strap that reflects the design of the green championship belt.
The fund doesn’t pay out cash to the former boxers; instead, the money is paid directly towards housing or medical care. This is to protect the boxers from financial mismanagement so often associated with the sport. “When money comes, it is usually accompanied by fame and glory, by temptations and by opportunists,” Sulaimán says. “Cars, watches, houses, travel, clothes, and, of course, the entourage that enjoy all of this themselves. One day the championship is lost, the world title belt is gone, the expenses keep piling up, but no more money is coming in. Eventually all those who were there for the fun, slowly disappear. The boxer enters into a depression and ends up back at his beginnings but without money.” He gives the example of Mexican fighter Pajarito Moreno, who never won a world title, but made decent money in the 60s. “He dated movie stars and would tip the waiter precisely double the amount of the bill,” tells Sulaimán. “He was known for that. He died alone and unknown. Mike Tyson, who made $400 million from the sport, or Evander Holyfield, who earned $200 million, both need to work today to have a decent living.”
Foreman is all too familiar with this fall from grace. Stepping out of retirement in 1994, aged 45 and unranked, he accepted a title challenge against Michael Moorer, who had recently beaten Evander Holyfield for the IBF and WBA titles, and was 19 years Foreman’s junior. For the fight, Foreman wore the same red trunks as in his title loss to Ali in Zaire. But this time, mirroring Ali, he was the underdog who surprised the crowd by regaining the title he had lost two decades earlier.
It wasn’t just pride that lured him out of retirement, though – it was money. “It was the most profound reason of all. I was broke,” he admits. “I needed money. I had to come back to boxing after nearly 10 years to make a living. I did the best I could and I was recognized for it, but you can’t deal with money like that. The dollar just slips away.”
Despite being a world champ, a hugely successful businessman thanks to his promotion of the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine, and the author of 10 books, Foreman continues to work for his dime. He feels the WBC José Sulaimán Boxers Fund is an important helping hand for boxers. “Struggling athletes should have no shame in turning towards the fund,” he says. “You’ve got to get up, brush your pants off, and fight.”
Originally published in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia