Foreman and Ali: A Time of Better Choices

I just saw the movie Big George Foreman, a film docudrama about the former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman. As an ardent boxing aficionado and historian, I am always suspicious about whether or not a mass-market boxing movie intended for widespread commercial consumption will be accurate or intentionally exaggerated for dramatic appeal.

No need for me to worry. It was a great movie, well done and perfectly cast. I know the Foreman saga quite well, having lived through it and followed his career first-hand as it happened.

He won the Olympic gold medal in the 1968 Games in Mexico City, stopping a heavily favored Russian opponent (Ionas Chepulis) in the 2nd round. It’s important to note that in the Soviet Union, there were no “professional” boxers, so Russian boxers who participated in the Olympics had many years of experience and hundreds of fights behind them, even though they were classified as so-called “amateurs” like Olympic fighters from other countries.

Particularly noteworthy about Foreman’s gold medal win was his parading around the ring afterwards, waving a small American flag. He did this on October 27th, 1968, in the shadow of two Black American athletes -- Tommy Smith and John Carlos -- raising their black-gloved fists on the medal stand on October 16th, 1968 in protest of how they felt American blacks were being mistreated in American society.

Shortly after the Olympics, Foreman turned pro and soon ran up a string of very impressive wins. In 1970, only two years into his professional career, Foreman stopped rugged Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo in the 3rd round with an awesome display of the frightful power that would characterize his fighting style. In January 1973, Foreman won the heavyweight championship with a brutal two-round demolition of previously undefeated Joe Frazier, the man who had handed Muhammad Ali his first professional loss two years prior, in a climatic, hard-fought showdown that was called, “The Fight of the Century.”

Ali remained active after his loss to Frazier and had soon fought his way back to the top contender’s position, becoming champion Foreman’s primary challenger. The fight was scheduled for October 1st, 1974 in the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as “Zaire”). This fight is popularly called “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

Ali and Foreman presented an interesting contrast in personal styles and represented completely different aspects of American culture. Foreman was still famous for his pro-USA actions following his Olympic triumph. But he’d sullied his personal appeal with a dark and dour demeanor, his cold and distant relationship with the press and his general surliness towards his opponents. (Note that in Foreman’s “second career,” when he came out of retirement and fought from 1987 to the mid 1990s he was an affable, friendly older man, quite popular. But not so at all in his “first career.”)

Ali, in contrast, was animated, articulate, and entertaining. Although a sizable segment of the sporting audience still resented him for his refusal to be inducted into the Army in 1967 (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong”), at this point in 1974, that was seven very long years ago and public sentiment about that war had moved 180˚. Vietnam was seen by the majority of the public as a huge mistake and many felt that Ali’s original anti-war stance was totally vindicated. In hindsight, any honest observer can see that the Ali of the 1970s was motivated far more by the desire to promote his fights and be the entertaining center of attention than he was by any deep-seated anti-American sentiment.

So Foreman’s supporters were sports-based, people rooting for someone to finally give the brash and annoyingly boastful Ali his well-deserved comeuppance. Ali’s supporters, by this point, were less social-movement-based and more on his side because of his cool, attractive, engaging manner. He was simply far more personally captivating than the sullen and testy Foreman.

In one of the most memorable moments in sports history, Ali shockingly regained the crown from the heavily favored Foreman with an 8th-round knockout.

But since that night in 1974, the tenor of the country has changed dramatically. Today, it seems like the vast majority of leading public personalities -- be they sports figures, musicians, or actors -- are no longer agreeable, positive people. Instead, they’re complainers, critics of the country, spokespeople for victimhood despite their own very comfortable and successful individual circumstances. These days we have the Colin Kaepernicks, the Brittney Griners, the Lia Thomases, and the Kendrick Lamars all telling the world that America is fundamentally bad, that our society is unfair and discriminatory and that “they’ve” got to change. Others need to change and pay up, renounce their merit-earned standing in life (no matter how modest) and acknowledge that the time-honored and time-proven values and history of this country are now, suddenly, wrong and mean-spirited.

It can certainly be fairly argued that in the 1940s-50s-60s, racial equality and opportunity were still a long way from being achieved. But by the 70s and 80s, this was a fundamentally different -- and better -- country in terms of ethnic/racial equality than it was a generation or two earlier. Muhammad Ali was a leading cultural protest voice on the American scene in the 1960s. However, Ali’s deep-rooted anger of 1965 had permanently given way to a twinkle-in-the-eye/tongue-in-cheek approach less than a decade later. The Ali of 1974 was no longer a racially motivated America hater. He was a noisy -- but mostly harmless – self-promoter. Things in the country were better. The Watts and Detroit race riots of the mid-60s had passed. The black-fisted Olympic protest of 1968 no longer seemed necessary.

Yet today, out of nowhere, there is a new victimhood mentality, a new entitlement movement overwhelming the country. Some would say that this new victimhood mentality – wokeness -- where entire swaths of the populace are suddenly “oppressors,” while the Left sees an opportunity to fabricate phony, cynical reasons to cull younger uninformed voters and cement a permanent electoral majority going forward.

One thing is certain, however: In October 1974, the choice on both the biggest sporting and cultural stage in the country was between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Two good choices. Two people who, in their own way, had come to represent different good parts of the American experience.

We no longer have two good choices. Today, each side is totally convinced that their side is the only good choice, with essentially no middle ground. And that is sad.

Image: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anef/Library of Congress

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