No athlete knew how to work a crowd better than Muhammad Ali, the legendary former heavyweight champion who on Oct. 30, 1974, stopped George Foreman in perhaps the most surprising win of his career.
Ali had an innate sense of how to marshal support from the crowd and how to anatognize an opponent, and never was that more obvious than during the build-up to his fight with Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.
Josh Peter of USA Today, a former Yahoo Sports writer, wrote a fabulous piece on the 40th anniversary of the Ali-Foreman match that is well worth reading.
Among the priceless anecdotes in Peter's compelling story is how Ali manipulated the people in the country then known as Zaire to support him and oppose Foreman.
Peter spoke with Gene Kilroy, a Las Vegas legend himself who served as Ali's business manager and remains close with the former champion to this day. Kilroy told a wonderful story of how Ali greeted the fans when he stepped off the plane in Africa.
We're getting off the airplane and Ali said to me, 'Who don't they like here?' I said, 'I guess they don't like white people.'
"He said, 'I can't tell them Foreman's a white man. Who else?' I said, 'The Belgians.'"
The Belgians ruled Zaire from 1908 through 1960 and the country was known as The Belgian Congo. They weren't popular with the natives, even 14 years after their rule ended.
The crowd was chanting his name as he walked over to speak to them and the assembled media, Peter reports.
... (A)ccording to Kilroy, Ali held his fingers by his lips to quiet the chants of "Ali, Ali!"
Then, Ali told the crowd: "George Foreman's a Belgium (sic)."
Foreman, who was the bad guy in this fight but later became one of boxing's most revered stars, told Peter he also had trouble because of the breed of his dog, Dago, a German Shepherd. The Belgian police used German Sherpherds to help control crowds, and so the dogs weren't popular in Zaire.
Foreman said he was startled, given the wildlife in Africa, to learn the population was afraid of the dog. But they were, and the fact that Ali pushed the notion further turned the locals against Foreman and in favor of Ali.
"They said people feared the dog," Foreman said. "And I said, 'My goodness, they've got hyenas and lions over there, and they're afraid of a German Shepherd?' It doesn't make sense."
The story is a wonderful account of not only the fight, but the events leading up to it. Peter details Ali's secret marriage to then-18-year-old Veronica Porche as well as how Foreman tried to leverage an extra $500,000 out of promoter Don King.
In a companion piece, Peter speaks to Ali's daughters, who say their father's health is not as bad as widely reported. Ali's brother, Rahman, often tells reporters that Ali is near death, though Ali's daughters Hana and Maryum told Peter that is not the case.
Hana Ali said her uncle Rahman was misinformed about her father's health and that he is doing as well as can be expected.
"He doesn't mind the press talking about him dying. Sometimes he looks at me and he'll go, 'I'm not dying.'"
It's a fabulous story and if you're an Ali or a Foreman fan, you don't want to miss it.