I remember it well just as if it was yesterday. I was only ten years old then. I felt it coming weeks in advance. My uncle who I lived with at the time, talked about it almost daily. The adults in my neighborhood discussed it with excitement in their voices. I didn’t know what to expect but like Alice in Wonderland, I grew curiouser and curiouser.
Muhammad Ali The Greatest was set to fight George Foreman. That’s what all the hype was about. The fight was being called ‘The Rumble In The Jungle.’ I had never heard of this supposedly great person before but I thought that he had to be some sort a great person to be fighting four men. My ten-year old understanding had somehow misinterpreted Foreman for four men. No wonder everyone was so excited. Who wouldn’t want to see one man go up against four? Ali it seemed, was the favorite to win so he must really be good.
The fight couldn’t come soon enough and when it did, it found my uncle and I sitting in front of a small black and white television. Back in those days, it was the biggest tv I had ever seen, even though it was only a 13 inch. There were no pay-per view and we had just the one channel but I guess the fight was broadcasted to all the networks as we were able to watch in on our one-channel television.
I didn’t know what to expect, then a brute of man walked into the ring. It wasn’t really a ring. To me it was more like a pen where you kept horses. It was also square shaped. I didn’t let that deter me from enjoying this moment. The big brutish looking guy was announced as George Foreman. It didn’t take me long to make the connection and correction. Foreman did kinda looked like Four men. His arms were like black steel and he looked ready to inflict pain on whoever was brave enough to step into the square ropes with him. His demeanor was mean. I hated him right away as he reminded me of the bullies in my school.
Then, in a moment that I would relive again and again, The Greatest entered the ring. The cheers were so loud my heart raced. He was the most handsome man I’d ever seen. Scratch that, he was the best looking person that I had ever seen. He reminded me of my Dad who I had only seen in photos. He had a brashness that I liked. His manner was saying to the world, ‘I am the Greatest and I look damn good too!’ He didn’t have that bully look about him. He looked just right. I never knew why but he made me feel brave and able to stand up to anyone and anything.
Then I there I knew who I wanted to be like. There was also something about the name, Ali. I was hooked and followed his every move. Every punch. I smiled with delight as he did his patented Ali Shuffle. He was flying like a butterfly and stinging the brute like a bee indeed.
My uncle was in a frenzy. He kept jumping up and throwing punches in the air while yelling, “Hit him! Yes! Hit him!” It didn’t seem like a nice thing to say but as long as my guy Ali was doing the hitting I was alright with it. I doubted if there was a bigger fan of The Greatest that night. For years after that night, I saw his round baby face dripping with sweat, pointing at me from the tv and telling me ‘I am the Greatest! I am King Of The World!’ I never doubted him in the least.
The fight was not an easy win for Ali. My uncle and I thought he was done when he laid back onto the ropes and took punishing hooks to the body. We learned later that it was part of Ali’s plan and was called ‘The Rope-A-Dope’ and designed to wear the big bully out. It worked. Foreman was dead tired in the later rounds and wasn’t able to make the count after falling to a combination from Ali. The Greatest, The King came through once again. Beating the odds to beat the big bully.
That night, I never knew that this Ali had also defied the odds proir to this fight and taken the boxing title away from a boxing legend named Sonny Liston. I never knew that this man had traded all that boxing had giving him, fame and fortune, to take a stand against something he didn’t believe in. The Vietnam war. His responses to his being drafted, ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Nigger.’ and “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?“ are forever etched in my memory. For his refusal to fight, he was subsequently arrested, stripped of his title and suspended.
After being away from boxing for three years, Ali returned and soon reclaimed his throne as the King. The Rumble In The Jungle was the fight that gave him his crown back. The Greatest was still The Greatest.
Although ravaged by Parkinson, Ali is still The King to me. His face no longer baby smooth and boyishly handsome but now aged and etched with visible signs of the disease. I do not look at him with sadness or pangs of pity. I still see before me, the man who made me believe. The man who defied odds. The man who I wanted to be like. The Greatest.
My first son’s middle name is Ali in honor of this great man. My Greatest Hero, Muhammad Ali.