Don King was trying desperately to get on the Muhammad Ali gravy train when he helped put together the fight that would live in boxing lore.
The Rumble in the Jungle didn’t just end up being a defining fight in the careers of Ali and Foreman. It also launched the career of the spiky-haired promoter who got the two boxers to Africa and kept them there even after a Foreman cut delayed the match more than a month.
After the fight, King became one of the biggest promoters in boxing history. Nothing new for Ali, who made money for himself and plenty of others.
That included King’s rival, Bob Arum, a former government lawyer who met football great Jim Brown when doing some legal work in the mid-1960s. One thing led to another and Brown suggested to Arum that he promote Ali. Soon he was in Chicago, meeting with the heavyweight champion and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.
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The plan was to promote Ali’s defense against Ernie Terrell in March 1966 in Chicago. But things went awry when Ali told a national television audience “I got nothing against the Viet Cong. They never called me the N word.”
Authorities in Chicago quickly declared that Ali would not be fighting in their city. No other state would take the fight, at a time the country was deepening its involvement in Vietnam and racial clashes were heating up.
Arum moved the fight to Montreal, but under pressure from the American Legion the mayor blocked it. The bout finally ended up in Toronto, but by this time Terrell had pulled out and George Chuvalo was brought in as Ali’s opponent.
Ali had gotten Arum into boxing, but at a price.
“You have to understand, I became a pariah,” Arum said. “My family was targeted with threats and everything. But Ali’s determination and the fact that what was happening to him was so unfair I just kept going. That’s how we really formed a bond together.”
That bond would last through 26 Ali fights, and spawn a promotional career that made Arum rich and arguably the most powerful promoter in boxing. A half century later he’s still promoting fights at the age of 84.
“We were on this adventure crusade together,” Arum said Saturday. “It was always an adventure with Ali.”
It was an adventure many wanted to go on. Some went along for the entire ride, while others hopped on and off as Ali traveled the world, fighting big fights and spreading his message.
In the corner was Angelo Dundee, the Miami trainer who Ali sought out when he was still an amateur named Cassius Clay. Dundee’s greatest asset may have been that he never tried to change Ali and was loyal to him through good times and bad.
In the moment that mattered most to Ali, Dundee came through. It was in his first fight with Sonny Liston, when Ali felt something burning in his eyes and came back to the corner after the fourth round ordering Dundee to cut the gloves off so he could quit.
Dundee refused, and talked Ali through the round. He came back and won the heavyweight title for the first time when Liston stayed on his stool after the sixth round.
Others in his entourage had their specific jobs. Some were well paid, others just happy to be reflecting in Ali’s glory.
Ferdie Pacheco was Ali’s personal ring doctor, while Bundini Brown’s job was the chief motivator, yelling out “Rumble young man, rumble.” Howard Bingham was there taking photos of Ali all the way to the end, and Gene Kilroy was the business manager, known as “The Facilitator” who took care of everything else.
And then there was Howard Cosell, who latched onto Ali early and rode him into television stardom. Long before he was ever considered for Monday Night Football, Cosell was a local announcer in New York who covered Ali’s fights and famously defended him when he was banned from boxing for evading the draft.
Ali and Cosell would play off each other like a finely tuned comedy team, and Ali was not afraid to tug on Cosell’s toupee on TV, much to his consternation.
“You’re being extremely truculent,” Cosell told Ali during one interview.
“Whatever truculent means, if that’s good, I’m that,” Ali replied.
King might have made more money off Ali than anyone, promoting fights like the “Thrilla in Manilla” and Ali’s fight with Larry Holmes. But it was the fight with Foreman in Zaire that put him on the boxing map even if he wasn’t the official promoter.
King said he had gotten Ali to agree to take $5 million for the fight but was having trouble signing Foreman, the fearsome heavyweight champion who was knocking out everyone put in front of him. Foreman, he said, was afraid he was going to hurt Ali and that if he beat him people would say he beat an old man. Besides, Foreman said, Ali talks too much.
“I said that’s it, George,” King recalled. “That’s how we do it. Let’s shut his mouth. We got the fight on and it was marvelous.”
Foreman recalled it a bit differently Saturday, though after 42 years it hardly matters.
Ali would partner up with just about anyone, strange bedfellows though they might be. That included the Beatles when they came to Miami to do the Ed Sullivan Show and ended up with Ali in a room above his training gym.
“Come on Beatles, let’s go make some money!” Ali yelled out.
They ended up in a bizarre cross promotion in the ring, with the Beatles lying down as if they were knocked out and Ali standing over them.
The pictures are now iconic, just like many of the men in the life of arguably the most iconic man of the 20th Century.