This piece is from Hugh McIlvanney's book, "McIlvanney on Boxing ". It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.
The Greatest Again
We should have known that Muhammad Ali would not settle for any ordinary old
resurrection. His had to have an additional flourish. So, having rolled away the rock,
he hit George Foreman on the head with it.
Foreman, roughly disabused of his conviction that all his rivals were entombed in
physical inferiority, is by no means the only one left stunned by the blow and that
gives Ali a particular satisfaction. He said so more than once in that muted time
early on Wednesday afternoon when the turmoil detonated by his achievement had
subsided for a few hours. Lying back on the thick cushions of an armchair in his villa,
with the windows curtained against an angry sun that was threatening to evaporate
the Zaire River as it slid like a grassy ocean past his front door, he talked with the
quiet contentment of a man whose thoughts were acting on him as comfortingly as
the hands of a good masseur. `I kicked a lot of asses – not only George's,' he said.
`All those writers who said I was washed up, all those people who thought I had
nothin' left to offer but my mouth, all them that been against me from the start and
waitin' for me to get the biggest beatin' of all times. They thought big bad George
Foreman, the baddest man alive, could do it for them but they know better now.'
As he started the next sentence, Ali remembered the presence of his aunt, Coretta Clay, and the other cook, Lanna Shabazz, who had just been asked to `fix two steaks and scramble about eight eggs' for him. He checked himself, then shaped rather than spoke the words: `Ah done fucked up a lot of minds.' That he has, just as he has opened up new horizons for the misled among the faithful, for those of us who have long considered him the most remarkable performer sport has ever produced and yet – with logic, the boxing forecasters' Iago, spitting falsehoods in our ears – found ourselves fearfully predicting that Foreman would be too young and too strong to fall before him. When something as close to a miracle happens, awe befits the onlookers more than analysis but Ali for his part was happy to dissect and explain what he had done.
With myself, one other journalist and his household staff as the only listeners, he rambled for more than two hours through a generally subdued monologue that left out little of what he felt about the fight and its implications. He had been satisfied with the briefest of rests after his pre-dawn exertions and, in the words of his chronicler, Budd Schulberg, had `talked up a storm' most of the morning. He would do so again later in the afternoon as he ranted happily from one press conference to the next ('Now I can really boast') around his training camp at N'Sele, forty miles from Kinshasa. But, given his mood in his living quarters at lunchtime, two interlopers were not enough to evoke the usual theatrical reaction, to justify the self-perpetuating stage act. So the scene, despite its occasional hilarity, was an oasis of seriousness, the still eye of his verbal storm.
He was dressed in a short-sleeved black shirt and matching slacks and had kicked off the heavy running boots that are his regular footwear in camp to show white boxing socks with black rings round the top. His wrists and hands were uncluttered by decoration, or even by a watch. Apart from a small bruise beneath the right eye and some flecks of blood surrounding the iris (which he attributed to Foreman's thumb), he was unmarked. But he admitted that a left-side rib, which was first cracked nearly ten years ago and has been troublesome since, was again giving him pain. His voice was slightly hoarse, not so much from over-use as from the residual effects of a slight cold that had bothered him before the fight. A fairly severe cough racked him now and again and when it did he grabbed his sore rib and doubled over.
`Muhammad Ali stops George Foreman,' he muttered with his eyes closed. `Man, that is a hell of a upset. It will be weeks before I realise the impact of this. I don't feel like I'm champion again yet. I can't wait to see all them magazines. They got to say I'm the greatest now, the greatest of all times. I fooled them all. They thought I'd have to try and dance against George, that my legs would go and I'd get tagged. George thought that too. But that was my main thing, not dancin'.
The trick was to make him think he was the baddest man in the world and everybody had to run from him. Truth is I could have killed myself dancin' against him. He's too big for me to keep moving round him. I was a bit winded after doin' it in the first round, so I said to myself, "Let me go to the ropes while I'm fresh, while I can handle him there without gettin' hurt. Let him burn himself out. Let him blast his ass off and pray he keeps throwin'. Let it be a matter of who can hit who first, and that's me." This was a real scientific fight, a real thinkin' fight. For me it was. Everythin' I did had a purpose.
`There he was wingin' away and all the time I was talkin' to him sayin', "Hit harder, George. That the best you got? They told me you had body punches but that don't hurt even a little bit. Harder, sucker, swing harder. You the champion and you gettin' nowhere. Now I'm gonna jab you." Then pop! I'd stick him with a jab. "I'm gonna jab you again sucker," I'd say and there it'd go. Pop! "Nothin' you can do about it, sucker." He didn't like gettin' hit with those punches. You see his head go on his shoulders, you see it turn every time I connected? And when did I miss?
`I'd jab, then give him a right cross, then finish with a jab. Nobody expects you to finish a combination with a jab. Those punches took the heart away from George. Joe Frazier mighta taken them but they sickened George. When he did all that talkin' about concentratin' on his defence because he was scary about takin' punishment, people thought he was just a big man kiddin' along. But he really don't like punishment
and I proved it.
`By the fifth round, you remember when I leaned back on the ropes and gave him all the free shots he wanted and he couldn't do nothin' to bother me, by then I knew George had shot his load. I knew he was through.'
Ali's eyes lifted suddenly and he smiled at Aunt Coretta and Lanna Shabazz, who had winced and drawn in their breath as he talked of that fifth round. `Were you scared when I let him punch away at me like that? It weren't nothin'. He weren't hittin' no spots, no place vital where he could hurt me. I was leanin' back over the ropes with my head out of the way and my arms was savin' me from real damage on the body. If he'd hurt me I'd have moved. I knew what I was doin'. You know I wouldn't go in there to let no street fighter mess me around.'
Coretta Clay, a small woman with the firm-boned features of the world champion's father, abandoned herself to a high, ecstatic laugh at the door of the kitchen. `There'll never be another like him,' she shrilled when she recovered. `He is the Alpha and the Omega.'
As far as professional boxing is concerned, he pretty well is. When all the outlandish trappings of an extraordinary event have begun to fade and gather dust in the memory, when we have grown vague about the wheeling and dealing involved, about how ethnic pride and financial avarice became ardent bedmates, when we scarcely smile at the remembered sight of Bundini Brown planting a kiss and a `Float like a butterfly' biro on President Mobutu or the more appealing but equally unlikely spectacle of an attractive young black woman breast-feeding her baby in the third row ringside, where accommodation cost $250 a place without mention of meals – when that distant day comes, what will remain utterly undiminished is the excitement of Muhammad Ali's performance. And for this witness at least the most vivid recollection will not be the inspiration of his tactics or the brilliance of his technique, spellbinding though they were. It will be the glittering, flawless diamond of his nerve.
Many will see what happened in the Twentieth of May Stadium as an exposure of Foreman's deficiencies, of the self-defeating crudity and lack of imagination that had begun to drain him of both energy and resolution as early as the third round. But we are only aware of the extent of those weaknesses because Muhammad Ali refused to be impressed by the punching power of a man who had not been taken beyond the second round in his previous eight fights and who had annihilated the only two fighters ever to defeat Ali. Despite being in the best condition he has known since being forced out of boxing by the US government in 1967, Muhammad at the age of thirty-two may have had suspicions about the limits of his legs and wind but his decision to invite Foreman to crowd in on him must be seen as an astonishing act of calculated bravery. And his ability to function at maximum efficiency, without the slightest impairment of concentration, while the bombs were flying around his head in the early minutes, testifies to a fearlessness that even the prize-ring has rarely produced. And all this after turning back for his dressing-gown and arriving in the stadium less than half an hour before he was due to fight. The man could pick flowers in a minefield and never miss a bloom.
He explains it as simple confidence in his own abilities: `An experienced pilot flies a plane through a storm without gettin' in a panic. If new things happen he is cool. I have been boxin' twenty years and I'm a pretty good fighter. I can walk into the firin' line with a man like Foreman and I got no fear. Nothin' can happen that I don't understand. I been to school.
'I was a pro nine years before he was. When he got knocked down it was new to him and he was lost. I've been down. I've been humiliated. Had my title taken away. Had my jaw broke. Had so much trouble with my hands for seven years now the doctors been tellin' me to quit. This time they were strong. I was able to hit the heavy bag and I fought without Novocaine injections for the first time in years. But I been through all these things. I know the hard side.
It was an amateur against a professional, a kid against a man. I tell you somethin', if he had got up I could have humiliated that boy. George has been actin' up with fancy clothes and all that stuff with his dog, and misusin' people, runnin' the press around, talkin' funny when he does talk. He used to be a nice fella but he's changin'. You know how big it makes me to get the title back ten years after I won it from that other big bad bully Liston, to be just the second man to regain the heavyweight championship and the first to win it twice without ever losin' it in the ring. Yet you can walk in on me here and talk to me, no sweat. Tomorrow I'll be back in the ghetto pickin' up black babies and drinkin' soda at a corner store. I talk plenty but I don't act up like George.'
At that moment Foreman was hardly a picture of arrogance. With reddening bumps around both eyes and in the middle of his forehead, and signs that the old cut on his eyelid had wept, he looked and sounded whipped and weary and uncertain as he rested in his Kinshasa hotel. `I admit he amazed me,' he said. `Just the distance he could lean back over the ropes was amazin'. And he out-thought me tactically, planned his fight better than I did.' Foreman did not seem to be inventing excuses when he said he had not felt right for four days before the fight. He says he found himself having to take excessive amounts of liquid and this suggests a chemical imbalance in his system that could explain the swiftness of his physical deterioration on the night, though Muhammad would suggest that any man who swings sandbags will tire if he hits nothing but air.
In the villa, having eaten his steak and eggs and drunk a few pints of orange juice, the champion was watching a television cassette of a fight preview with rapt, boyish attention, his mouth slightly open. When he wasn't arguing with the comments of others, he was calling for proper respect to be shown to his own contributions. `Shhhhh.... Listen to me here.... Watch this.... I was right, wasn't I? ... I said I'd stop him after seven and he went eight.... I even cancelled the rain. It stayed dry for the fight, then an hour after it there was a storm that nearly flooded the place.' This was all bewilderingly true. He bent over the set with a hostile concentration when Foreman's manager, Dick Sadler, came up on the screen. Sadler said his man was a thunderous, murderous puncher. `No he ain't,' said Ali flatly. Sadler talked of Foreman putting one opponent, Gregorio Peralta, in bed for four days. `I got outa bed after two hours,' said Ali. `I put him in the bed.' Next we saw Sadler holding the heavy bag while the former champion went close to punching a hole in it. `Trouble was,' said Ali, as if they could hear him, `nobody was holdin' me.'
Who can hold him now? Those marvellously timed punches he threw in the eighth round on Wednesday put the promoters as well as Foreman at his feet. John Daly, the English entrepreneur, has already offered him $10 million for a third fight with Joe Frazier, in Beirut, and the expansion of closed-circuit television makes even more enormous sums feasible. Frazier is the likely opponent, though Ali acknowledges the contradiction that he will always have trouble with a man who was pulverised by Foreman. Ali will certainly not retire, partly because he loves the drama of boxing and partly because the money is too good to refuse. He says he has two or three million saved already (for a man who was about to watch Bonnie and Clyde on cassette he retains a touching faith in banks, has none at all in investments), but needs more to feel secure.
In a sense, that is a pity, for Wednesday would have made a fine exit. As Coretta Clay says, he is boxing's Alpha and Omega. Now we have seen him, what can it offer us? Maybe both he and boxing should quit while they are ahead.