Monday, March 19, 2007

Ali Still "The Champ" A Generation After "The Rumble"

By Will Graves

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- The chant began before the eighth round flickered onto the screen, an echo from a day long past.

"Ali bomaye! Ali bomaye!"

Muhammad Ali shook slightly as the chant -- which means "Ali! Kill him!" -- washed over him. He looked up from his seat and smiled.

The Champ was at the Muhammad Ali Center on Sunday, joined by several witnesses to the "The Rumble in the Jungle." They watched a film of the famed bout and told old stories about what some consider Ali's finest hour in the ring, when he chopped down mighty George Foreman with the "Rope A Dope" and took back the heavyweight championship on Oct. 30, 1974.

There was Angelo Dundee, the legendary trainer who never doubted that Ali, at 32, could handle the hard-hitting and hard-charging 25-year-old Foreman, the one who many experts predicted would destroy the former champion.

There was Leon Gast, director of the Academy Award-winning documentary "When We Were Kings," who can remember the heat and the crowds of people who flocked to see Ali.

There was Howard Bingham, Ali's personal photographer, wincing when recalling the punishment Ali took early in the fight as Foreman pushed Ali into the ropes and attacked with the right hand that had knocked out 38 of his previous 40 opponents.

And there was Foreman, laughing as he talked about the supposed quick 10-count by the referee that ended his first reign as heavyweight champion.

"In that fight, Muhammad beat me," Foreman said. "If I'd gotten up, he would have killed me."

But mostly, there was Ali, holding court as only he can.

Even now, at 65 and his body worn down from a long battle against Parkinson's disease, Ali delighted the crowd of 175 that traveled from points across the world to meet the man whose greatness touched their hearts and whose generosity made him a global icon for peace.

Ali posed for pictures, signed autographs and even did a little conducting when the crowd hailed him with a belated rendition of "Happy Birthday," holding his left hand for just a second to extend the final note.

"This is just what we envisioned for this center," said his wife, Lonnie. "For people to be able to experience this when he's still here with us, not when he was gone."

Screen images of that hot early morning in Kinshasa, Zaire, showed Ali conserving his energy as Foreman gradually weakened. Then Ali attacked in the eighth round with a flurry that sent Foreman stumbling to the canvas and the 60,000 in attendance into what Gast called "the happiest moment in boxing history."

Dundee can still remember the way Ali never appeared to get rattled, even as Foreman lashed at the former champion, eager to showcase his dominance. Dundee laughs now, admitting he was worried Ali would somehow get flipped out of the ring for backing too far into the ropes, ropes that Dundee concedes were probably too loose.

Yet more than the fight, Dundee remembers the way Ali was embraced by the people of Zaire, who followed him wherever he went in the weeks leading to the bout and screamed with joy when the referee counted Foreman out.

"In every town, Muhammad captured the town," Dundee said. "That night, Ali captured a country."

And he made inroads on a world stage.

"He was more than just a boxer before the fight, but that one showcased his humanity," Gast said. "The way he brought in the people, the way he treated them with respect, it really spoke to who he is."

Though it seemed the oddsmakers were against Ali -- who was a heavy underdog -- Dundee never lost belief that Ali would find a way.

The proof is in a moment Gast captured during the filming "When We Were Kings," a moment that didn't make it into the documentary because of technical problems. Dundee was watching Ali dance around the ring when he turned to someone and predicted the outcome.

"Angie said 'Look at the shape he's in. No way this guy is going to get beat. He's going to take (Foreman) out in eight rounds, I swear to you,"' Gast said.

Dundee's words proved prophetic, though even Dundee said he wasn't exactly in on Ali's plan to use the "Rope A Dope" on Foreman.

"I said 'I guess you know what you're doing,' and he did," Dundee said. "He was always smarter than me anyway."

Yet Ali's appeal goes far beyond the victories. Many of those who visited him Sunday weren't alive when Ali first shocked the world by beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964.

Robbie Anderson was 4 years old and growing up in England when Ali defeated Foreman. His memories of Ali in the ring are of an aging champion fighting a losing battle with time. Yet Ali's fighting opened Anderson's eyes into Ali the man and inspired him to help others.

On Sunday, the 36-year-old Anderson brought his 9-month-old son, Charlie, to meet Ali. He wanted to show his son the man who inspired him to volunteer for a humanitarian group and spend two years helping build hospitals and churches in Africa.

"He's such a giving person," Anderson said. "I truly believe he's an angel, he's been touched by God. There's something about the man. There's just an aura about him that inspires me. Actually not just me, but millions."


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