Jungle Butterfly

The “Rumble in the Jungle” took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) on this day in 1974. The George Foreman-Muhammad Ali championship fight has multiple claims to its place in boxing, sports, and cultural history. Ali’s victory came via his surprise “rope-a-dope” strategy and against Rocky odds; the $10 million purse, secured from Zaire’s President Mobutu by new promoter Don King, was then a record; the worldwide television audience is estimated at 1 billion; a “Black Woodstock” music festival preceded the fight, and the films, books, and songs came after; Ali’s gloves and robe are now in the Smithsonian; and the relationship between the boxers has gone from in-fight taunts (“They told me you could punch, George!”) to post-fight friendship, Foreman helping an ailing Ali to the podium when the 1996 documentary film of the fight, When We Were Kings, won an Oscar. Looking back in Soul of a Butterfly, his 2004 book of “Reflections on Life’s Journey,” Ali notes the evolution of his relationship to Foreman, concluding “I think he’s a good person…and I use his grill.”

With so many storylines to pick from, the boxing itself can get lost. The following, excerpted from Norman Mailer’s The Fight, describes the final, famously photographed moment from Round 8:

…Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best punch of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in his doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the center of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world and would see him on his dying day. Vertigo took Gorge Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position, eyes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. His mind was held with magnets high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground.

He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news, yes, fell over all of a long collapsing two seconds, down came the Champion in sections and Ali revolved with him in a close circle, hand primed to hit one more time, and never the need, a wholly intimate escort to the floor.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.