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How Muhammad Ali Won the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’

3 minute read

When TIME sent Nairobi Bureau Chief Lee Griggs to Kinshasa in 1974 to preview the Oct. 30 boxing match that became known as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” it seemed clear that the winning money was not on the favorite. The bout between reigning champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, who had previously lost the title after refusing to be drafted into the military, came with the biggest purse in sports history. Both boxers were guaranteed at least $5 million but — though boxing fans worldwide, and especially in the country then called Zaire, were rooting hard for Ali — it seemed clear that Foreman would be the one going home with the title. He was younger and strong and on a winning streak. He would back Ali into the ropes, where the older boxer’s footwork would do no good. TIME’s sports editor Philip Taubman predicted that the result would be Foreman in six.

When the fight actually went down — 40 years ago Thursday, after a delay of about a month from its originally planned September date — that did not happen. Though Foreman went after Ali just as predicted, the results were far from what had been expected.

Here’s what did happen, as TIME reported in the Nov. 11, 1974, issue:

Then, in the second round, the bee unexpectedly threw away the tactics of his entire career. Off his toes and seemingly off his rocker, Ali stood along the ropes, exactly where Foreman wants an opponent to be. Indeed, with his customary authority, Foreman started pounding punches against Ali’s midsection. Some of Foreman’s blows glanced off Ali’s arms and gloves, and none hit Ali’s face, but it seemed to be only a matter of time before Ali’s belly would turn to pulp.

Astonishingly, Ali seemed hardly concerned. As the fiercest puncher since Sonny Liston whaled away, Ali shouted taunts at Foreman. “You can’t hurt me!” Ali yelled. “You punch like a sissy.” Soon it became clear that Ali had constructed a trap. All summer and fall he had been developing granite abdominal muscles with a grueling regimen of calisthenics, spending an hour every morning hardening his gut by doing sit-ups with his legs held up at a 45 degree angle or while his limbs were pumping back and forth in a bicycle-pedaling motion. Now he was simply letting Foreman punch himself out against that iron flesh. “I wanted to make him shoot his best shots,” said Ali later.

That is precisely what Foreman did. In the sultry tropical night (the temperature was 86° and the humidity about 90%), Foreman’s punches soon lost power. Arm weary, he began to swing wildly, frequently missing entirely, spinning around on his own momentum like a worn-out drunk. Ali took advantage of Foreman’s slack defense by springing off the ropes time after time to jolt the bone-tired champ with lightning combinations to the head.

By giving up on the “floating like a butterfly” that had made his career, Muhammad Ali won the match in the eighth round.

Read TIME’s run-up to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ here, in the archives: Violent Coronation in Kinshasa

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com