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Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook that Dazed Ali and Killed King's Dream
In his new book, Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream, Jack Cashill un-tells what may be the most mis-told story of the late twentieth century, the heroic rise of boxer, Muhammad Ali. This retelling sheds bright new light on some slighted boxing greats like Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman and reveals the surprising role that Christianity has played in the sports culture.
7. The Unusual Men to
In September 1960, the very same month Ali won his Olympic gold in Rome, Joseph Mobutu staged a coup in the Congo and placed elected President Patrice Lumumba under house arrest. In November, Lumumba escaped but was recaptured by Mobutu’s troops. They eventually delivered him into the lethal hands of rebel leader, Moise Tshombe, with the understanding that he would be permanently removed from center stage.
Ideology fully shapes the death narrative of Patrice Lumumba. Although recent revelations have shown the Belgian to be fully complicit—and they have apologized profoundly—the international left has preferred to blame the CIA, which wasn’t. Malcolm X was among those who saw the Lumumba death as one of those infamous “chickens” that had come home to roost in JFK’s assassination.
What matters for this story is that Mobutu was as thoroughly implicated in the death of Lumumba as Elijah Muhammad was in the death of Malcolm X. To deny that involvement is to patronize the both of them. Each was capable of murder and competent enough to get away with it. Neither of them needed the help of the FBI or the CIA or the Belgians.
What Muhammad Ali did not know when he signed to fight George Foreman in Mobutu’s Zaire was just how incoherent his myth had become. At one point, Ali jokingly warned Foreman, “My African friends will put you in a pot.” His African friends were not pleased. They reminded Ali that such talk is “not in the best promotional interests of a country on the move.” The very phrase, “Rumble in the Jungle,” coined by Ali and popularized by Don King, dismayed them as well.
Ali’s hosts had much to be sensitive about. Mailer marvels at how Mobutu and his henchmen had managed “to couple some of the oppressive aspects of communism with the most reprehensible of capitalism.” Images of Mobuto loomed as ubiquitously and as frighteningly as Stalin’s or Mao’s in their respective heydays. Among these images was a forty-foot photo of Mobutu glaring over the soccer stadium where the fight was to be held.
Mobutu also had the savvy—and the nerve—to build a monument to Patrice Lumumba in the heart of Kinshasa. If Ali ever knew Zaire’s history, he seemed content to forget it. “I wish Lumumba was here to see me,” Ali tells Leon Gast on camera, “I want to win so I can lead my people.”
“History repeats itself,” wrote Karl Marx, “first as tragedy, second as farce.” The tragedy had occurred ten years earlier when Ali paid homage to a man—Elijah Muhammad—who had encouraged the murder of one of the era’s two great black nationalist heroes, Malcolm X. The farce occurred when Ali paid homage to the man who orchestrated the murder of the second, Patrice Lumumba. One can almost forgive Ali his naïveté, but there is no excusing the shapers of his myth. They knew better.
In his autobiography, Ali innocently boasts of the murderous tyrants who embraced him. On his first trip out of the country after the Supreme Court decision, for instance, he flew to Libya where he met Libya’s strongman Muammar al-Qadaffi. Ali was seeking financing for a mosque at about the same time Qadaffi was financing the Black September attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Qadaffi bemoaned “American arrogance” and assured Ali that his loss to Frazier provoked “a day of mourning” in Libya. On the same trip, Ali met Uganda madman Idi Amin, a former prizefighter himself, who “laughed and flexed his muscles” for Ali. In less than a decade of rule, Amin would murder an estimated 300,000 black Ugandans and expel all 80,000 Asians, many of whose families had been in Uganda for generations.
On fight night in Zaire, Ali was the first one to enter the ring. The crowd greeted him with a roar, and he led them in the chant, “Ali Boom-ay-yee.” In English, the phrase means “Ali kill him,” an unlikely mantra for either a conscientious objector or a religion of peace. “This was his crowd,” Pacheco observes. “He was in command.”
Champ George Foreman tried to psych Ali by delaying his entrance ten minutes, but that just gave Ali ten more minutes to pump up the fans. As Foreman sensed immediately, Ali had a huge home court advantage.
The first round went more or less according to plan. Ali danced, and Foreman stalked. Ali surprised Foreman with a few quick stand-up exchanges, but he did not inflict much damage. In the second round, Ali shocked his corner by allowing Foreman to pin him against the ropes. He held his hands up to protect his face, sagged back against the nearly elastic ropes, and let Foreman whack him like a heavy bag.
“Get away from the ropes,” Ali’s corner yelled. “Get away from the ropes.” Their horror was genuine. “When he went to the ropes,” Dundee would admit years later, “I felt sick.” At the end of the round, Dundee, Pacheco, Bundini—all implored Ali to stay off the ropes. Ali waved them away and said quietly, “I know what I’m doing.” Ali had keyed in on the physics of the ring. The inordinate give in the ropes conducted much of Foreman’s power right through Ali and out on to the ropes themselves. The give in the upper rope also allowed Ali to lean far back and pull his head out of harm’s way.
All along, Foreman had planned to pin Ali against the ropes, but once he got him there, admits Archie Moore, “George didn’t know what to do.” He just kept crunching away at Ali’s arms, and soon enough, he had punched himself silly, the first “dope” snared by the now celebrated “rope-a-dope.” By the end of the fourth round, Ali knew he had him. A sharp, five-punch sequence in the eighth caused the champ to jackknife goofily to the canvas. He was up at nine, but referee Zack Clayton waved the fight over.
After seven years in the wilderness, Ali had recaptured the heavyweight crown. Forget V-E day or the fall of the Berlin wall. Says Ali biographer Tom Hauser, “No event in history inspired as much global joy.”
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