SI Vault
George Plimpton
November 11, 1974
All through his training Ali had promised the fancy footwork that would elude Foreman's power, but he had a secret plan that stunned them all—and especially the champion
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November 11, 1974

Breaking A Date For The Dance

All through his training Ali had promised the fancy footwork that would elude Foreman's power, but he had a secret plan that stunned them all—and especially the champion

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It is hard to imagine what the extraordinary events in the predawn hours under a pale African moon in Zaïre are going to do to the future of boxing. Kids who for years in the backlots of the world have emulated the flamboyant and graceful style of their idol, Muhammad Ali, the butterfly who floats and stings like a bee, will now imagine themselves coming off their stools and standing stolidly and flat-footed in the corner of the ring, or, more extreme, lolling back against the ropes, their upper torsos out over the press-row typewriters at the angle of someone looking out his window to see if there's a cat on his roof. For such were the Ali tactics that surprised everyone—including the men in his own corner—and proved insoluble to George Foreman, the heavily favored heavyweight champion, leading him to destruction as surely as the big cartoon wolf, licking his chops, is tricked into some extravagantly ghastly trap laid by a sly mouse.

The witnesses to all this, those lucky enough to see what will surely be considered one of the greatest fights in boxing history, began to fill the 60,000-capacity stadium at nightfall, hours before the main event scheduled for 4 a.m. They had come from all parts of a country that had thought of little else for a month. Both fighters had their strong partisans in Zaïre, and many among the crowd were féticheurs, the witch doctors of Kinshasa who often turn up at sporting events on behalf of clients, handsomely paid to try to influence the outcome. Indeed, among many Zaïrians the rumor was that Muhammad Ali himself had gone to one of the best féticheurs in town, perhaps even the Pygmy reputedly used by President Mobutu, and had paid a considerable sum for a spell to be cast against George Foreman. The odds were almost 3 to 1 against Ali and it seemed the sensible thing to do. The spell was supposed to manifest itself in the form of a beautiful girl "with slightly trembling hands" who would clasp Foreman's hand in some chance meeting—like Blind Pew passing the Black Spot—and the strength would slowly drain from him.

The féticheurs (often with their clients packed around them in adjacent seats) occasionally raise their voices in a loud, humming incantation. They wear a slightly more ornate form of dress, and dangling from amulets or in leather pouches they carry the artifacts of their profession: bones, fingernail clippings, chicken claws, the tips of antelope horns and other such charms. And since proximity increases their effectiveness, it would be a sure bet that at fight time a number of these objects would have been planted under the boxing ring.

The ring also had been doctored, in a more prosaic fashion, by Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali's trainer. He turned up at the stadium on the morning of the fight to see that the floor was as fast as he could make it by coating rosin thickly on the baby-blue surface, and by hammering wedges under it to make the canvas drumhead hard, so that his fighter could get a toehold for his swift moves.

Dick Sadler, the champion's manager, had no objections to this. Since both fighters would use the same surface it would serve Foreman just as well. "The best way to slow down a ring," Sadler said, "is with a hard left to the jaw, a right hand to the heart, and a left hook to the kidney. Though I'm not saying that my fighter's a kidney puncher."

Sadler was very confident. "When George hits a guy he lifts them off their feet," he said. "To win, Ali must have some sort of a break, a fluke. There's too much against him—me, Sandy Saddler and Archie Moore—that's two Hall of Famers and over 300 knockouts between us. And then George, no, that's too many things."

Everything one heard about Foreman suggested someone indestructible and devastating. The conjecture everywhere, including Ali's camp, was that the answer lay in staying away from the champion's power, moving and hitting. "lean step in, pop-pop-pop, and then step out," Ali said. "I can't help tagging him. He don't want to be tagged. He cannot stand a beating." Ali produced a couplet:

When all is said and did and done
George Foreman will fall in one.

It was a joke. Everyone laughed. It was ludicrous. The emphasis with Ali so surely had to be on speed and dancing. On the last day of his sparring, Ali came to the ropes and looked out at the crowd. He rested his forearms on the top rope and, turning an arm, he opened one hand. A small sparrow flew out and rose quickly into the upper reaches of the gym. Bundini Brown, one of Ali's cornermen, had trapped it in the press bus and given it to him. "That's what I am," Ali said. "When I fight George Foreman I'm going to fly like a bird."

Ali was up at 2 a.m. on the morning of the fight. He dressed in a black shirt, black trousers and the boots he considers the trademark of his profession. He and his party stood on the esplanade overlooking the River Zaire. The moon was directly above, and there was almost no conversation, the group looking out over the great river with the hyacinth drifting by in dark clumps, the mood that of men getting ready for a patrol.

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