Underestimating Muhammad Ali was the mistake of a lifetime, George Foreman says

Muhammad Ali, left, and George Foreman arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in Los Angeles on March 24, 1997.
(E.J. Flynn / Associated Press)

The one prominent photo that George Foreman keeps in his office at home in Texas shows him knocked to the canvas by Muhammad Ali in their famed “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Zaire in 1974.

The photo, Foreman says, is a testament to overconfidence, the danger of not remaining humble and, finally, to the greatness of Foreman’s delayed but strong friendship with Ali.

“It was the performance of a lifetime … I wish I had been able to tell him that right after it happened,” Foreman said.


The now-lovable Foreman was a different man then.

Muscular, massive, unbeaten and ornery, Foreman, like Ali, was paid $5 million by promoter Don King and his backers for the bout, which was delayed for more than a month until Oct. 30, 1974, after Foreman’s sparring partner, Bill McMurray, cut Foreman near the right eye.

“Guy stuck his elbow up in me and I couldn’t do anything,” Foreman said of the cut. “I was in the best shape of my life, at any time ... never before or since. Muhammad couldn’t have stood up to me. But I couldn’t run for 10 days to let the scar heal. Couldn’t spar for 20 days. All I could do was hit the bag and run. All of the rhythm I had was gone.”

Foreman was clearly viewed as the bad guy in Africa, countrymen roaring in unison, “Ali, boma ye!” (Ali, kill him), before and during a bout that drew 60,000 and was fought at 4 a.m. local time to satisfy U.S. television programming.

“[The chants] didn’t bother me,” Foreman said. “He was such a great entertainer, no one could compete with him, not at all. The guy was the greatest show on Earth.

“And I figured I’d knock him out in three rounds.”

Yet, Foreman’s dominance fostered immense overconfidence, both internally and among his training staff, led by head trainer Dick Sadler and former heavyweight title challenger Archie Moore.

“All of us had one gigantic ego, all because I had mopped the floor with everyone,” Foreman said. “The stronger I’d get, the weaker they’d all get.”


Foreman would read an entire newspaper during breaks while preparing for Ali — “even the horoscopes,” he said — but he’d avoid any stories in which Ali was quoted.

“Never studied one film, never dissected anything,” Foreman said. “He was such a good-looking guy, I’m like, ‘I can beat him.’ Never decided what his strength or weakness was.

“Afterward, I read the Playboy he was in and then every interview he did and I realized, ‘This guy, he was talking about how I couldn’t go 15 rounds ... .’ In one interview, he said, ‘Nobody can fight for 15 rounds. I’m going to fight for a few rounds, then coast a little bit, then fight a couple more rounds.’ If I had just read a couple of those things, I would’ve beaten him.”

Foreman laments he “played right into Ali’s hands” by believing the challenger was actually afraid of him as the fight neared.

“Muhammad was a master. He’d act as frightened as could be. I’d put a hand near his face and he’d act scared,” Foreman said. “Look, all those amateur boxing matches he had, Sonny Liston ... no way he was afraid of me.”

On fight night, Ali implemented the “surprise” tactic he’d discussed before the fight, the famed “rope-a-dope,” in which he backed to the ropes and blocked or absorbed a slew of Foreman’s heaviest punches, letting the champion exhaust himself.

“Usually, you finish a guy after hurting him. I just wanted to finish him,” Foreman said. “All I was getting from my corner was ‘Kill him, kill him, kill him!’ It was like a rap song.

“After three rounds, I had hurt him a few times and he looked at me and I realized, ‘This is a different fight ... this guy ... somebody lied.’ I hit him in the side real hard. He just covered up and went back to the ropes. After the third round, the bell rings, he says, ‘I made it!’

“I saw his face and realized this is not the fight I planned. This guy can take a punch and can hit back.”

In the eighth round, Ali again took himself to a corner and weathered some fatigued Foreman rights before moving off and unloading a flurry of punches, including a left that stunned Foreman and a crushing right to the head that caused the massive man to crash to the canvas.

“He never hurt me. Never. I was hitting on him, he squeezed and turned around and hit me with a combination, a one-two punch. I braced myself to stop the fall and hit the floor. It was a good shot,” Foreman said.

“That right hand was the fastest punch I’ve ever been hit with. Never been hit so fast. It was like he was a lightweight. I didn’t even see it coming. I waited, my corner told me to hold it, I jumped up, the fight was over.”

Foreman said that afterward he “fired ’em all. ... They should’ve been smart enough to say, ‘Pace yourself George, don’t try to win every round.’ ”

Foreman held on to the resentment for years, even taking to fighting five journeymen on one night with Ali and Howard Cosell watching ringside less than a year later, as if that would prove the endurance that Ali exposed.

In an interview in 1978 with Times sports columnist Allan Malamud, Foreman was asked what really happened in Zaire. There were persistent rumors Foreman had been drugged.

“I got beat,” Foreman answered. “As soon as I said that, I found peace. I realized all those years I wasted — those were the best years ... the two of us could’ve been friends that whole time instead of me being so angry.

“So I keep that photo as a reminder. I love the guy. I just wished I had said what I should have then ... .”

Twitter: @latimespugmire


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