Dick Sadler threw
his hands up in petulance. "Everything we planned to do—cutting the ring,
overpowering Ali, going after him—was designed to put him on the ropes. And
there he was. Just exactly where we wanted him." His voice was high-pitched
with frustration. "The bird's nest was on the ground. It was time to sit
down to eat the feast. But George didn't do it right. He wasn't doing what he
was supposed to. Hard combinations. Getting in closer. He wasn't setting him up
with the left hand. We told him. It didn't register."
Archie Moore had
a more sanguine view. He pointed out that the champion did not really have Ali
on the ropes. Ali had placed himself there, which was quite different, and thus
he was in the tradition of the great "rope fighters" like Young Jack
Thompson, a welterweight champion of the '20s who used the ropes with the skill
of a spider on the strands of his web.
Moore cleared his
throat. He is extravagant not only polysyllabically but in the use of metaphor,
and he had one to offer. "Ali swayed so far back on the ropes that it was
like he was sitting in an old convertible Cadillac. The '54 model," he
added, being very accurate about such things. "Now, George tried to enter
from the side doors. But they were shut. So George began to bang at them,
hitting at Ali's arms that had the elbows protecting his hips, on up to the
gloves protecting the lower mandible. On occasion George struck Ali some
tremendous blows on the upper cranium, causing Ali no little discomfiture. But
Ali weathered that, and he cunningly convinced George that he couldn't punch
and other such nonsensical things, until George began to behave like he
actually believed it, until this tremendous puncher lost his power from
punching at that Cadillac's doors and turned from an atomic force into a
firecracker. "In short," said the great ex-fighter, "as they say in
the idiom of Brooklyn, he blew his cool."
In the days after
the fight, when his senses had fully returned, Foreman himself offered no
excuses. "If you go out rabbit hunting," he said, "and you're a
poor man, and all you got is a rifle, and a table, and a family at home...and
out in the field there's a rabbit—Bam!—and you miss, it don't do no good to
come with excuses to put on the table."
"But you had
the rabbit dead in your rifle sights in the ring," someone said.
"The tactics were mine. Every time I fought someone he eventually got it.
Regardless of where he went or what he did in the ring, eventually he got it. I
thought that was going to happen. One of the shots would get him. But this guy
never really fought. He was like someone in a canoe. He rolled along with the
tide, waiting for it to turn. He was clever."
The object of
Foreman's admiration was trying out his new title. "Heavyweight champion of
the world," Ali said, drawing out the words. "It's going to take about
a week to sink in."
Ten years before
in his small training quarters in South Miami he had covered his mattress with
a felt-tipped scrawl of those magic words next to his name (Cassius Clay then)
to see how it would look if he won the title. Now a decade later, and after not
having it for seven years, the title was his once more, and with it befitting
adulation. It had been dawn when the new champion left the stadium on the night
of his victory. Along the route out of town back to his training compound on
the Zaire, at every village and crossing, the crowds that had heard the news
were out along the road, often whole rows leaping in exultation, so that the
passage of his small caravan—headed by a police car with an orange beacon
twirling, then his Citroen and the two buses with his camp people—seemed like
the return of a military column into liberated territory.
It was only when
the convoy reached open country that the crowds began to dwindle. The first
drops of rain began to fall. Heavy low clouds scudded on the hills ahead. It
had rained furiously in Miami after Ali had won the championship from Liston.
Now the rain drummed on the bus roof. For the last miles to the compound the
convoy crept through the first driving downpour of the rainy season. In one of
the quirks of good luck that finally graced the fight, the storm had held off
just long enough; as it came down the river toward Kinshasa it knocked out the
huge signal-sending facilities to the satellites, so that the millions who
watched the fight on closed circuit or on television sets would have seen their
picture fade and then go blank if the storm had come through an hour or so
earlier. When the storm reached the stadium in Kinshasa the water drained down
the seats onto the grass and toward the center of the field as if the ring
stood above a gigantic sluice. Under the stadium stands, the water stood a foot
deep in George Foreman's dressing room. In the city it thrashed the flame trees
and sent the bright blossoms swirling down the boulevards.
Kinshasa is a
city symbolically appropriate to the fall and shifts of dominance and power.
Everywhere, usually at the end of a broad avenue, or in front of a government
building, are great bare stone pedestals, now flat on top, with weeds growing
in the cracks, on which once stood the imposing statues of Belgian colonial
rule. On the promontory above the stretch of the Zaïre which is still called
Stanley's Pool, the famous statue of the explorer himself once stood, peering
up the river under the palm of one hand like an Indian chief. It too has been
pulled down and lies in a giant shed near the National Museum in a jumble of
cast-iron horses and kings. The roof of the shed is tin. On the dawn of the day
the heavyweight crown shifted hands, the sound of the rain on the roof must
have been deafening.