Lee Groves

10: Most historically significant upsets

6. Muhammad Ali KO 8 George Foreman: Oct. 30, 1974, Stade du 20 Mai, Kinshasha, Zaire

If Cassius Clay’s upset over Sonny Liston was a monumental surprise, Muhammad Ali’s victory over Foreman was an even bigger shock. While a lightning-fast 22-year-old Clay forced the 34-year-old Liston to quit on his stool, the nearly 33-year-old Ali beat a younger (25), bigger (6-foot-3 1/2 inches vs. 6-foot-1/2 inch), heavier (220 pounds vs. 218) physically stronger version of Liston – by knockout. Ali’s last KO win took place nearly two years earlier against reigning light heavyweight champion Bob Foster and his last stoppage of a heavyweight Foreman’s size took place two fights earlier than that against the 6-foot-3, 223½-pound Al “Blue” Lewis. Thus, what makes this upset so special wasn’t just that Ali won, it was that he did so in the most unexpected way possible, both in terms of the final result and the way he went about it.

The young George Foreman was a force of nature that bull-dozed his way to a fearsome 40-0 (37) record. His .925 knockout percentage dwarfed that of his mentor Liston (.694 going into the first fight with Clay) and Foreman didn’t need to stuff towels under his robe to make himself look more imposing. In that regard nature was more than enough. Moreover, Foreman’s performances were even more powerful than his physique. Going into the Ali fight Foreman had scored 24 consecutive knockouts and his victims included the only two men to have beaten Ali – Joe Frazier (KO 2) and Ken Norton (KO 2). The 3-to-1 odds favoring Foreman seemed much shorter than the reality.

Just as he had in the build-up to the Liston fight, Ali launched a multi-faceted psychological assault against the man he dubbed “The Mummy.” Though both men were American, Ali’s charm and extreme accessibility to the local populace made him an almost unanimous fan favorite. During one of his outings he found out the Lingala word for “kill him” – “bomaye.” From then on Ali urged the crowd to chant “Ali, bomaye” whenever possible. Foreman, on the other hand, sequestered himself in his training quarters and during the rare times he ventured out he was accompanied by guard dogs.

Ali declared throughout the build-up that he would dance all night and in the first round he did just that. But sometime during the opening three minutes Ali realized that Foreman was particularly gifted at cutting off the ring. Ali knew that, over time, he would run out of energy long before Foreman would in the stifling heat and humidity. At that point Ali called an audible for the ages; instead of using his legs to out-box Foreman he would lay on the ropes and hope that a frothing Foreman would punch himself out.

On its face it was a suicidal strategy and Ali’s supporters and corner people constantly yelled for him to stay off the ropes. They had good reason to feel that way, for Ali absorbed a terrible beating while trying to do the same thing to Joe Frazier in their first fight. Since then, however, Ali perfected his “rope-a-dope” technique during countless sparring sessions and for the next several rounds a pattern emerged: After absorbing Foreman’s thunder for a while Ali lashed out with pinpoint counters that spectacularly snapped back the champion’s head. All the while Ali talked incessantly to him: “Is that all you got, George?” “You punch like a sissy.” “Come on, hit me harder.” “They told me you could punch like Joe Louis.” Every syllable was like a punch to the face and one barb was particularly stinging: “Give it (the title) back to me!”

Foreman’s gas tank ebbed with each passing minute and by the fifth the champion’s punches had lost most of their snap. Ali’s sharp blows puffed Foreman’s face and his spirits were in equally bad shape. As the eighth round neared its final minute Ali closed the show in historic fashion. A five-punch salvo capped by a straight right to the face caused the bone-tired Foreman to pitch forward and stumble to the canvas. Foreman tried his best to scramble to his feet but by the time he did so referee Zack Clayton had counted him out.

With a combination of supreme bravery and tactical genius, Ali became just the second man ever to regain the world heavyweight championship. As for Foreman, the result of this fight began a chain of events that eventually grew into a quest for redemption. 

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