Gene Kilroy recalls fight 35 years ago
Normally, 35th anniversaries do not get celebrated much, but the Rumble in the Jungle deserves an exception. On Oct. 30, 1974, in a makeshift ring in the middle of Kinshasa – then Zaire, now Congo – one of the greatest examples of why boxing can be so special took place. That was the night when, watching from the small Waldorf-Astorio hotel room that temporarily housed a bunch of New York Times sports department members, I wasn’t rooting so much for Muhammad Ali to win as I was for him to survive.
He more than survived. He lived up to his promise to George Foreman that "I’m gonna whup your ass."
Sure I was afraid. Foreman was coming off of two-round knockouts of the only two men who had beaten Ali – Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Big George was undefeated and considered "invincible." Ali, at 32, no longer had the legs that had allowed him to dance rings around mortals.
It was clear that he was going to take punishment.
He surprised even his veteran trainer, Angelo Dundee, by going to the ropes and absorbing punch after punch from the feared slugger. With Dundee screaming "Get off the ropes," Ali stayed in harm’s way to weaken Foreman. Incredibly, the nail was beating the hammer in a demonstration of human will. Ali’s performance showed why man climbs mountains, why he goes to the moon. It was one of the most courageous acts ever performed by an athlete.
Ali was fearless. Gene Kilroy, now an executive at the Luxur hotel and casino in Las Vegas but then Ali’s camp chief, points to a meeting in New York where his guy landed the first punch.
"Ali and I were with Jack Dempsey when George came in," said Kilroy. "At the press conference Ali said George don’t knock anybody out and George got pissed. No one ever spoke to George like that. When George started glowering at him, Ali said, ‘Sonny Liston tried this when you were just a little boy – I’ll whup your ass."
When Foreman stormed out, said Kilroy, Ali said, "Mr. Dempsey, I just won the first round."
Still there was a contingency plan in case Foreman was dominating "to run in the ring and get Ali."
"Ali said, you’d better run in and get George Foreman because I’m gonna whup his ass," said Kilroy.
Before leaving for Africa, Kilroy said Ali talked to the old guru, Cus D’Amato, who years before Mike Tyson blinded him, could see how to beat the invincible.
"Brains, speed and guts, that’s what Cus said," Kilroy reported. He was by Ali’s side when D’Amato told him "your first punch must be with devastating tenacity and bad intentions."
When it was pointed out that Frazier and Norton had failed to derail Foreman, D’Amato snapped, "They’re not Ali."
The fight was delayed for 36 days when Foreman suffered a bad cut in training. Kilroy advised Zaire boss Mobutu to hold Foreman’s passport "or he’ll leave the country and never come back." It didn’t matter that an American didn’t need a passport to leave – George could have gone to Paris or London and gotten one there – but the long break did Ali well, said Kilroy.
"All he could do was rest, rest and rest," he said.
And train. Ali had become the local favorite. Getting off the plane, he had asked Kilroy who the people disliked most, and Gene told him "Belgians," the former colonizers of the Congo. Ali turned Foreman into a Belgian and thus was born the cry, "Ali, bomaye" – or, "Ali, kill him."
Ali continued the mind games after the bell, too. As he was taking punches, he would tell Foreman, "That all you got, chump?" He would answer with his own sharp combinations off the ropes, but stayed put.
Foreman kept hammering. In the third round, a vicious uppercut literally lifted Ali off the canvas. But by the fourth, Foreman’s punches were becoming wider and slower.
And less devastating. Ali toyed with him for a couple of rounds. It’s easy to forget that on all three official cards, Ali was winning the fight when he finally, at the end of the eighth round, took advantage of a wild Foreman miss and turned to land combination after combination, ending the amazing fight at 2:58. Foreman could have beaten Referee Zack Clayton’s count, but there was no point. Ali would only have put him back down.
It was simply the greatest performance by The Greatest. Yeah, we should celebrate the 36th anniversary, too.
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Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Michael Katz