This is an entry in an occasional series of posts looking back at the Ring Magazine Fights of the Year from 1970 to 2009.
In 1974, George Foreman defended his unified (WBC & WBA) Heavyweight championship against Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. This might be the most famous fight in history, and its story is well-known: After lying on the ropes for most of the fight (the “rope-a-dope” strategy) Ali won by knocking out an exhausted Foreman in the 8th round.
The basic pattern of this fight was that Foreman pursued while Ali retreated and counterpunched. The “rope-a-dope” wasn’t as prominent in the fight as you might imagine; although there were long stretches when Ali did lay on the ropes and let Foreman hit him like a heavy bag, there was also a lot of clinching, wrestling, and mutual parrying.
The overall balance of the fight began in Foreman’s favor, and then tilted towards Ali. (I scored the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th for Foreman, and the others for Ali.) Foreman’s attack was initially more well-rounded (albeit wilder), featuring good body work, while Ali was almost exclusively a head-hunter. Foreman’s effectiveness, power, and body attack all seemed to fade at the same time.
I hate to say it, but: I believe that this was rigged. The whole show feels phony. The only things that ring at all true are that first-career George Foreman didn’t have a lot of endurance, and that Muhammad Ali could take an enormous amount of punishment … too much for his own good, as it would sadly unfold. But the whole package on display here is simply, in the literal sense, unbelievable.
To briefly defend this view: While the “common-opponent” game is of limited utility, it’s not completely meaningless. Ali and Foreman had several common opponents.
- Ken Norton. Ali fought Norton three times, winning once by 15 round UD, and splitting a pair of 12 round split decisions. Foreman fought Norton once, winning by TKO2 after knocking him down 3 times.
- Joe Frazier. Ali fought Frazier three times, splitting a pair of unanimous decisions, and winning via TKO14. Foreman fought Frazier twice, winning by TKO2 and TKO5, knocking him down a total of 8 times.
- George Chuvalo. Ali fought Chuvalo twice, winning a pair of unanimous decisions. Foreman fought him once, winning via TKO3.
(To be fair, there was also Jimmy Young: Ali took a unanimous decision over Young, while Foreman lost one in the last fight of his first career.)
After the Zaire fight, Ali said that “Foreman couldn’t punch”. I don’t see how any honest fight could produce that conclusion. Something was crooked in Zaire. That’s just how I see it.
1: Foreman and Ali both start the fight on their toes, bouncing around. Foreman stalks Ali, backing him up. Ali fires quick shots to Foremans’s head, which land, then the fighters clinch. This pattern repeats over the first 90s of the round. Later, Foreman seems to begin to find Ali’s body, and to move himself out of position to be hit by Ali’s head shots, although he looks awkward and wild. The referee seems very reluctant to let the fighters work inside; he seems quick to break them even when their hands are mostly free. Ali clearly wins the first half of the round, Foreman narrowly wins the second half, so it’s Ali’s round.
2: Foreman up quickly at the bell, chasing Ali to the ropes. Foreman presses the action throughout the round, firing to the head and body approximately equally. Ali often seems to be at the end of Foreman’s head shots, but many still seem clean and effective. Ali slips and blocks many, but far from all, of Foreman’s punches. Foreman takes some clean punches to the head, particularly a nice 1-2 in the last third of the round, but wins by simply throwing and landing more punches. (Side note: the commentator — Bob Sheridan — seems very invested in selling the idea that Foreman’s punches aren’t landing/aren’t effective. That’s not what I see, by and large.)
3: For the most part, this round is dominated by Foreman chasing Ali to the ropes, where he employs a good mix of attacks to the body and head. Ali, for his part, tries to catch Foreman with combinations while he comes in. Ali succeeds in landing 4 very flashy combinations, but Foreman’s consistent aggression and effective punching when Ali is cornered win him the round. Ali might be able to take some (but not all) of the power off of Foreman’s head shots by leaning back, but he’s absorbing a tremendous amount of punishment to the body.
4: The same pattern as the first three rounds, but Foreman looks wild and ineffective, aside from a single vicious left hook to the body at the end of the round. Ali lands some good combinations early; enough to win the round.
5: Ali goes full turtle for 2:30 of the round, while Foreman attacks his head (rarely effectively, as Ali blocks and leans back) and body (to much greater effect). In the last part of the round Ali begins to trade with Foreman, landing some nice shots to Foreman’s head, but taking some counters as well. Ali arguable wins the last 30s, but Foreman wins the round. (Side note: Before the round the commentator interviews one of the fight’s promoters, who calls it for Ali “within the next 4 rounds”. A very accurate call, as it developed.)
6: Ali lands some very nice jabs (and at least one good combination) to the head. Foreman again backs Ali into the ropes, but now seems to be mostly headhunting. Foreman also looks tired; many of his punches seem to have reduced force behind them, although the occasional heavy shot still lands. A close round, narrowly to Ali on clean punching.
7: A very strange round. Foreman looks dazed from the opening bell — sluggish, and with little to nothing on his punches. He seems to regain some power between 2:00 to 2:30 of the round, but looks fatigued again in the last 30s. Ali wins this round on a handful of sharp punches to the head, although he isn’t very active either.
8: There are basically 4 parts to this round. First, Foreman and Ali trade, with Ali getting the better of the exchange. Then Foreman chases Ali to the ropes and beats him up for a while — his punches seem to have regained their power. Then the fighters move to the opposite side of the ring, where Foreman’s power disappears. Then Ali rallies, and knocks Foreman down. Foreman is down with 11s left in the round. Foreman regains his feet just about 10s later, but the referee has already waved the fight off. This was just about the quickest count imaginable, although, by my watch, it wasn’t clearly illegally fast. Considering that Foreman arguably beat it, and that there were only 1-2s left in the round, it is all a little strange.