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David Remnick's Muhammad Ali

11:00 PM, Dec 13, 1998 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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It's October 30, 1974 and the fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali is about to start. Set in Kinshasa, Zaire, the bout has been hyped for months, dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle" by its promoter, Don King. Foreman is the reigning heavyweight champion and heavy favorite; he's a massive, mean, undefeated slugger who has knocked out thirty-seven opponents in forty fights.

But for months Ali has been publicly mocking Foreman, questioning his intelligence, his durability, his might, dismissing him as an "amateur" and a "mummy" who gained his title by beating "bums." "This fight," Ali promises, "will be the greatest upset of which anyone has ever heard."

Now, at fight-time, Foreman tries a psychological ploy of his own. Ali's already in his corner, but for several long minutes Foreman refuses to appear. It's an old boxing trick: The champ dawdles in his dressing room so that his challenger, alone in the ring, can consider more fully the hard flogging he's about to receive.

But Foreman's plan backfires. Ali shows nothing but confidence and calm. As he waits, he shadowboxes; he prays; he welcomes -- and leads -- the crowd's cheers. And by the time Foreman finally pushes through the ropes, it's clear that few in the packed stadium are on his side. They're all lustily backing the handsome and amusing underdog -- a man who has long billed himself as "The World's Most Colorful Fighter."

Of course, Foreman-Ali proved to be one of the most celebrated bouts in modern boxing history -- the subject of Norman Mailer's The Fight, first published in 1975, and Leon Gast's fine 1996 film documentary, When We Were Kings. At its start the two fighters slugged it out, toe-to-toe. But by its close Ali was in complete control. He'd spent much of the match leaning far back against the ropes, taunting Foreman, absorbing a constant shelling of blows. "George," he kept saying, "that all you got?" as Foreman, the knock-out king, hauled back and hammered away. At the end Foreman was dizzy, shot, wide open to Ali's precise jabs and the speedy combination of hard punches that left him senseless on the mat.

Later Ali disclosed that he had flummoxed Foreman with a "Rope-a-Dope" strategy that, he knew, would lure Foreman into wasting his energy in the early rounds. In 1994, at forty-five, Foreman would regain his title with a knock-out of Michael Moorer. But his loss to Ali left him embarrassed and depressed, and in 1977 he left boxing for ten years, uncertain of the skills that had made him the sport's most intimidating figure.

Throughout the 1970s, Ali also "retired," several times. He was bigger, perhaps even stronger, than ever before. He was still bombastic, ever willing to ham it up before cameras and microphones. But as his fight with Foreman showed, Ali -- though still faster than most heavyweights -- was slowing down. He continued to notch some impressive victories. But, like Foreman, he now found himself struggling against fighters he would have outfoxed and outboxed just a few years before. In 1981, against Larry Holmes's left jab -- probably the best in heavyweight history -- Ali mustered no defense. He looked dazed, slow and pathetically vulnerable. Another lopsided loss to the overrated Trevor Berbick proved conclusively that, by 1981, the Ali of old was irretrievably gone.

How good was he? In his new book King of the World, David Remnick (the recently appointed editor of the New Yorker) notes that Ali "built his boxing style on the principle that a big man could borrow the tactics of a smaller man" -- a man like Sugar Ray Robinson, a middleweight and one of Ali's boyhood heroes. Some boxing analysts have argued that this approach -- while aesthetically intriguing -- was all wrong for a man of Ali's size, forcing him to rely too often and for too long on footwork and speed. Thus, unlike the durable Jack Jackson -- another of his heroes -- Ali failed to develop the defensive skills that are part of the repertoire of a truly masterful boxer.

Still, Ali improved steadily as a puncher; he proved too, in his epic battles against Foreman, Ken Norton, and Joe Frazier, that he could stand up to the hardest hitters in the game. He was graceful, resilient, and shrewd. In an era unusually rich in heavyweight talent, Ali never dodged a foe. Foreman, Frazier, Norton, Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks: Ali beat them all. He was a three-time heavyweight champion who defended his title nineteen times -- fewer than Joe Louis and Holmes, but far more than other heavyweights in this century. (Jack Dempsey made only five title defenses; Rocky Marciano, six.)