, ,

No one appreciates the power of Ali like George Foreman.  As a kid, listening the gold-medalist on the radio, he viewed Ali with equal measures of fear and fascination. He recalls first hearing the phrase “black Muslim,” growing in a small Texas town. Nobody really had a problem with “Muslim,” he says, but the word “black” inspired fear and suspicion. What was this guy talking about; what kind of problems could a man like Ali cause, what trouble was he going to stir up?

Ali arrives in Kinshasa, Zaire to meet Foreman for the Rumble in Jungle

Ali arrives in Kinshasa, Zaire to meet Foreman for the Rumble in Jungle

His confusion with Ali gave way to competition which gave way to contempt and, eventually,  to a hard-earned and heart felt respect.  George Foreman didn’t just experience the force that was Ali, he came to terms with it.

Before turning pro in 1969, George Foreman was already on the wrong side of Muhammad Ali. While he trained for the ’68 Olympics, some of the most elite black athletes in the country considered boycotting the Games altogether. The Olympic Project for Human Rights,  which promoted a boycott, counted Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Bob Beaumont and Tommie Smith among its members. They presented a series of grievances to the Olympic Committee concerning South Africa, Rhodesia and Muhammad Ali.

In South Africa, the Botha government had recently banned political opposition to apartheid. In Rhodesia, white-supremacists under Ian Smith declared national independence, violently imposing their will in defiance of world condemnation. Both countries planned to send whites-only teams to the Games.

By 1968 Muhammad Ali was a revolutionary force unto himself.  He cast a figure just a large as any African republic.  A convert to the Nation of Islam (and later Sunni Islam), he applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war.  When his status was denied he stood his ground, was stripped of the heavyweight title, denied license to fight in all 50 states, had his passport revoked and was pilloried by the national press.

OPHR  demanded that the Olympic Committee ban both apartheid states from the games and that U.S. boxing officials restore Ali’s title.  They were also calling for the removal of Avery Brundage, the avowed white-supremacist and anti-Semite who chaired the Olympic Committee.

Peter Norman, Tommie Smith & John Carlos (all three wearing OCHR buttons)

Peter Norman (Aus), Tommie Smith & John Carlos, all wearing OPHR symbols.

In the end, however, OPHR concluded that boycotting the Olympics  was too much to ask of athletes who had sacrificed so much to get there. Abdul Jabbar, the best known collegiate athlete in the country, however, made a dramatic stand. He refused to join the U.S. Olympic basketball team, and he paid for it.

When Today show host, Joe Garagiola, asked Abdul Jabbar why he refused to play for his country, he famously answered: “I live here, but it’s really not my country.” Never known to be much of a thinking man, Garagiola replied,”then there’s only one solution…move.”

Tommie Smith went to Mexico City and set a world record, broke the 20 second barrier in 200 meters, and won gold.  Then, he sacrificed it all moments later. In one of the most iconic moments in sports, he and John Carlos raised their fists high during the National Anthem.  It was an act of immense courage, as well as the end of two careers.

The questions Abdul Jabbar, Smith and Carlos were grappling with are still relevant, but no closer to being resolved, today. The raging debates of athletes wearing I-Can’t-Breath jerseys, or running onto the field with their hands raised,  is no different than it was nearly 50 years ago.  How do our most celebrated athletes acknowledge the reality of being black in America?  Is it necessary, or even possible, to compartmentalize one’s existence enough to leave your identity in the locker room, like another item of street clothing?

For Muhammad Ali that wasn’t an option.  He had rejected the name, the history, the religion, the station, and the very consciousness that had been imposed upon him. He was his politics.  There was no gesture he could refrain from or button he could remove, no catch phrase he could avoid.  The problem people had with Muhammad Ali was his being Muhammad Ali.

Early in his career, after beating Sonny Liston, a reporter asked Ali about his association with the Nation of Islam.  He saw right through the question and got to the heart of the matter, saying “I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” He controlled the dialogue, he would not be controlled by it.  It was one more thing, like black, beautiful and Muslim, that we just couldn’t get used to: a black man who would define himself on his own terms.

On the other side of the moon, George Foreman understood none of this.  He was far removed from the historic Cleveland Summit.  Boycotting the Olympics never crossed his mind and he dismissed Smith and Carlos for their “college boy protests” (later he’d say it was more about elitism: he felt rejected by OPHR who, he says, never once reached out to a non-collegiate athlete).

But in 1974, the man who had feared the term “black” confronted the man who owned it  in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Dem. Rep. of the Congo).  The likes of Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton were on hand, propelling this far beyond a mere title fight.  This was a story vindication and validity, righteousness and respect, courage against compromise.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of Ali’s victory.

I suppose it would be equally hard to overstate what it meant for Foreman to lose.  Ali had always reached something in him that no one else could touch. Only Ali could trigger that level of rage, that depth of shame. When he read in an interview that Ali said “Foreman is no boxer, he just wants to kill somebody,” he says he felt so ashamed. He also said every word was true.

Foreman turned the Rumble in the Jungle into an obsession, an internal burning rage that  that ate at him relentlessly.  He said he was robbed, the water was drugged, the ropes were loose and the fight was rigged. For six years he couldn’t admit to being beaten. Then, in 1980 when a reporter asked what had happened in Kinsasha, he said the words aloud. “He beat me.” The air coming out of his lungs took with it a crushing weight, but exposed a another level of shame. Recalling that moment, Foreman, says he realized what he’d done in denying Ali’s victory. He had had put a “blemish on this great man’s career.”  So, in the early 1980’s he  reached out to Ali.

He discovered the animosity was one-sided. Without hesitation, Ali welcomed the friendship, the unique bond and unabashed love he love he had to offer.  In 2003, Foreman would remember  the Rumble in The Jungle like this: “He wanted them to love him…Ali made them love him. That’s why I couldn’t beat him. He heard them chanting his name;  that’s where the stamina came from. They loved him. I love him too.”

“He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known,” Foreman added, “Not greatest boxer, that’s too small for him.”