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Thirty years on, you can still hear the rumble

By Nirmal Shekar

The point about sport is its ephemerality. It is the key to sport's enduring appeal. Sport not only intensifies life's dramatic elements but also — despite its sense of self-importance — provides constant reminders of the transient nature of life itself.

Today's epoch-making triumphs are tomorrow's forgotten footnotes in history. Today's devastating loss is tomorrow's irrelevant detail. As aggressively as high sporting drama threatens to invade and occupy the memory, it quickly recedes to obscure realms.

Yesterday's glorious, historic victory seems to fade into insignificance when compared to the sheer scale of today's soul-shattering defeat (the glory of Adelaide is as nothing compared to the Nagpur humiliation).

This is as much because we live in a world of relentless over-statement, when the unprecedented sports explosion has created a rising tide of hype about the games and the players because of the very nature of sporting triumph and disaster, which, in the larger picture of life, is largely trivial.

It is just as well this is so because in this day and age it is very easy to get carried away and come to view the sporting arena as the centre of the universe, and sport itself as the raison d'etre of existence while, actually, it may not be much more than trivial pursuit.

True geniuses

Yet, amidst all this, amidst all the built-in ballyhoo, there are some extraordinary events that break barriers and seek to re-define the meaning of sport itself. Men who author these events are more than mere heroes — they are true geniuses, icons of their age.

And when it comes to events of epochal significance, few that we have witnessed in the last 50 years can stand comparison with what has come to be known in sporting folklore as The Rumble in the Jungle. It happened at around 9.30 a.m. IST on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire. In eight rounds of pure magic, an ageing Muhammad Ali floored the most destructive puncher boxing had ever seen, George Foreman.

As sporting miracles go this was a pure one-off whose significance extended way beyond the strictly defined boundaries of sport. Not surprisingly it also helped create one of the finest pieces of sports literature there is — a rather thin volume simply called The Fight, written by Norman Mailer.

Promoted by the irrepressible Don King as The Rumble in the Jungle, the fight was widely expected to be a lopsided contest between a 32-year-old has-been and a ruthless, seemingly invincible 25-year-old champion who was a deadly punching machine.

At that time, 10 years after Cassius Clay stunned Sonny Liston and announced himself to the world as Muhammad Ali, boxing in the United States still had a relevance that went way beyond the ring. For the African-Americans who faced cruel discrimination well into the 1960s and 1970s, black champions were a great source of pride. Yet, until Ali came along, most black champions were perfect role models in the mould that the white man had chosen for them.

Then Ali said, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be what I want.''

A shock

It was this declaration of independence that shocked the white establishment which did everything possible to keep Ali out of boxing, essentially away from the centre-stage. And when he refused to be drafted, proclaiming memorably, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong'', the battle lines were clearly drawn.

What Ali really meant was that a black victim of white racism in America did not think it morally right to fight a brown victim of white American racism in his own country to suit the whims of Washington and swear by its perverted idea of freedom in the world.

Later, Ali did win a few famous battles outside the ring but the war itself remained to be won when he took on Foreman. Although Foreman himself was black, everybody knew what the stakes were and who was backing who.

Foreman went into the fight with a magnificent record. Seven months before the Ali fight, he had destroyed Ken Norton with such violent rage that those who watched the fight did not really watch all of it — many had chosen to close their eyes in sheer disgust.

In eight successive victories Foreman had never gone into the third round and his defeat of Joe Frazier was as impressive as his victory over Norton. In his book, The Fight, Mailer wonderfully describes the atmosphere in the two dressing rooms before the fight — the sepulchral silence in one and the laughter in the other.

Many fans, in fact, feared for Ali's life. What can save Ali? Who can save Ali? These were the questions on everyone's lips.

As it turned out, one man could — Ali himself. He came up with the greatest gamble seen in boxing, a rope trick of such breathtaking simplicity that it needed the man's genius as a fighter and thinker to dream it up and then pull it off.

Resting on the ropes, cupping his gloves around his head and absorbing everything Foreman could throw at him, Ali finally came up with that devastating right that sent the drained champion to the floor in the eighth round.

Muhammad Ali was the world heavyweight boxing champion again... against all odds. Thirty years on, those who know the true significance of events in the world of sport will still cherish memories of that unforgettable day.

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