Rumble still thrills 35 years on

Kevin Iole

LAS VEGAS – An image rapidly flickers on and off the screen and Gene Kilroy hardly pays it a whit of attention.

Suddenly, a familiar, commanding voice booms out, "There! It's right there! Play that back."

Confused, Kilroy rewinds the film and the same seemingly inconsequential image slides past. "See that?" the voice asked, enthusiasm filling it. "That's it. That's it. I've got him."

Kilroy still hadn't seen a thing except grainy figures inside a boxing ring. One more time, the voice commanded the movie be replayed. Only this time, Muhammad Ali explained what he saw.

"He was a genius," Kilroy said on Tuesday, some 35 years after running the projector for Ali as 'The Greatest' was watching a tape of a George Foreman fight in search of some vulnerability. "He noticed so much and he was so smart. He watched that tape and I'll be damned if he didn't see it."

And so was born the strategy that would become known as the "Rope-a-Dope."

Ali noticed that Foreman would tire after a minimal flurry of punches. After one particularly busy round, Ali noticed that Foreman, appearing excessively exhausted, sagged back against the ropes to catch his breath before trudging back to his corner.

On Oct. 30, 1974, in the most unlikely of venues, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Ali implemented the "Rope-a-Dope" strategy to knock Foreman out in the eighth round of "The Rumble in the Jungle," one of the biggest and most famous upsets in boxing history.

Ali was considered on the decline when he signed to fight Foreman in the African jungle for the heavyweight title in what then-Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko hoped would be a way to promote tourism in his country.

Kilroy was at Ali's side, as he was for many of Ali's most memorable moments in the last half century. The two formed a close and permanent bond and Kilroy earned a reputation as Ali's "facilitator," the man the champ turned to when he needed something, anything, done.

Kilroy is now a Las Vegas casino host and still clearly reveres Ali. The fight's 35th anniversary on Friday stirs memories in Kilroy, who remains fiercely loyal to Ali.

Kilroy recalled watching the tape of a Foreman fight in which he fatigued and not understanding what he was seeing as Ali kept asking him to play it back.

"Ali knew just by watching that tape that George didn't have the stamina," Kilroy said. "He put that in his mind and when he needed that information, he had it right there and he did something with it."

But Ali also perpetrated a months-long mind game on Foreman that began at the Boxing Writers Association of America dinner in New York in early 1974, where Foreman was being honored as the 1973 Fighter of the Year.

Ali was speaking with former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey when Foreman entered the room and stared at him intently.

"Muhammad said, 'Excuse me, Mr. Dempsey,' and he turned to Foreman and he got real nasty with him," Kilroy said. "He was loud and rude and angry. He said, 'Who do you think you are? Sonny Liston tried to pull that, too, but you're just a boy. I'll whip your ass right here.' He really went on and on. Then he walked back over to Dempsey and he said, 'You know, Mr. Dempsey, I just won Round 1.' "

In the summer of 1974, Ali was greeted by massive crowds when his plane landed in Zaire. He was walking off the plane with Kilroy at his side and the crowd was chanting his name.

"Ali! Ali! Ali!" they screamed.

Ali put his hand over his mouth and asked Kilroy, "Who do these people dislike?"

Since the country had only recently changed from Belgian rule, residents had no love for Belgians. The country had been known as the Belgian Congo.

Kilroy whispered something to Ali, who shouted to the crowd, "Foreman is a Belgian!"

That seemed to further anger the crowd, which began to chant, "Ali, bomaye!"

That was Swahili for, "Ali, kill him!"

Ali opened the fight with a lead right hand, an unusual tactic that was no accident. Kilroy said before leaving the U.S. to head to Africa, Ali called trainer Cus D'Amato, who would become better known later for mentoring a young Mike Tyson.

D'Amato told Ali he needed to stand his ground, at least for a time, against Foreman and land something hard that would shake him up. When Ali charged out of the corner, he fired out the lead right that caught Foreman flush.

By the second round, Ali retreated to the ropes and leaned back, covering his midsection with his forearms and his face with his gloves. He allowed the heavy-handed Foreman to whale away at him while offering little resistance.

"We're all there wondering what he was doing," Kilroy said.

But Ali had remembered that movie he had seen of Foreman and knew that a surefire way to defuse his power and slow him down was to allow him to punch himself out. Foreman obliged by hammering Ali repeatedly. In the few times they clinched, Ali would taunt Foreman, Kilroy recalled, asking the champion to hit him harder.

Foreman was severely fatigued and slowed by the end of the seventh round. Ali went on to land a left hook in the eighth that rocked Foreman and followed with a crisp straight right that sent Foreman tumbling to the canvas.

Ali's second title reign had begun.

The Mobutu government had arranged for a plane to fly Ali and his crew to Paris, since it wasn't licensed to land planes in the U.S.

On the way to Paris, someone pulled out a film of the fight and Ali regaled the 80 or so onboard with his own commentary about the fight.

Kilroy has been involved in boxing for most of his life, much of it with Ali, but that night stands out as one of the finest.

"To someone of my era, there are two incidents where, when you mention them, you remember where you were: You knew where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated and you knew where you were when Ali won the title," he said. "There was so much that went on and Ali played it all just about perfectly."