The Rumble in the Jungle 40 years on, by those who witnessed it

George Foreman and Muhammad Ali
Ali stunned the world when he knocked out Foreman in the eighth

The greatest sporting event ever? Some might disagree. The most seismic boxing match in history? Perhaps not. The 20th Century's most compelling piece of sporting theatre? Of course it was...

Here's the plot: the maniacal ruler of a strange and exotic land offers a seemingly invincible ogre riches beyond his wildest dreams, if only he will defend his fabled world heavyweight crown in the despot's far-off country.

The ogre's challenger is a handsome and charismatic king, unfairly deposed many years earlier and committed to a quixotic and dangerous quest to win his crown back. Guess what happens next...

To mark the 40th anniversary of 'The Rumble in the Jungle', BBC Sport spoke to some of the men who witnessed the before, during and after of this modern fairytale. A fairytale it must be, because it doesn't seem real.

Colin Hart (British boxing journalist): I first heard about the fight seven months before it happened. I was in Caracas, Venezuela covering Foreman's world title defence against Ken Norton and before the fight a press conference was called by [fledgling boxing promoter] Don King. His hair was standing on end as if he'd seen a ghost, I'd never seen anything like it.

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The story of Rumble in the Jungle

He announced that the winner would fight Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo]. I'd never even heard of Kinshasa. When King went on to say the fight would take place at 4am, I nearly fell off my chair laughing. I was thinking: 'Who is this clown?' Seven months later and there I was, ringside in Kinshasa, at 4 o'clock in the morning…

Gene Kilroy (Ali's business manager): President Mobutu [of Zaire] came up with the idea of staging the fight to show off his country and promote tourism. He put up a big amount of money and King went to Seattle, met George and told him how easy a fight it was going to be. And Foreman went for it.

George Foreman: To me, it was like a charity fight. I'd heard Ali was desperately broke, so I thought I'd do him a favour. I got $5m and I was willing to let him have $5m.

I said I was going to go out there and kill him and people said: 'Please, don't say you're going to kill Muhammad.' So I said: 'OK, I'll just beat him down to the ground.' That's how easy I thought the fight would be.

Gene Kilroy: I remember a press conference at Jack Dempsey's restaurant [the 1920s heavyweight legend owned a notorious boxing hangout on New York's Broadway] and George walked in.

Ali looked him straight in the eye and said: 'Sonny Liston [whom Ali beat to win the world heavyweight crown for the first time in 1964] pulled this stuff when you were a little boy, you think I'm scared of you? I'll whip you right here.' George walked away and Ali sat down and said: 'Mr Dempsey, I just won round one…'

Mike Costello, BBC boxing commentator
"They were not born when Muhammad Ali 'handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail' in Zaire 40 years ago, but Carl Froch, Ricky Hatton and David Haye have long since come to recognise how 'The Greatest' persuaded us to believe in miracles. Watching 'The Rumble' - separately - with three of Britain's finest world champions was entrancing. At times, they seemed as giddy as those children who lined the streets of Kinshasa to catch a glimpse of Ali in the build-up to his monumental triumph."

Jerry Izenberg (American boxing journalist): I went out to Deer Lake [Ali's training camp in Pennsylvania] shortly before Ali left for Africa. I walked in the gym and couldn't believe what I was seeing - Ali was hitting the heavy bag, and he hadn't hit the heavy bag for about a year and a half.

Gene Kilroy had taken him to a doctor in Philadelphia, who'd told him to forget injections for arthritis and to bathe both hands in hot paraffin three times a day instead. And as he was banging this bag, he looked over his shoulder and said: 'I'm gonna knock the sucker out!'

Roy Foreman (Foreman's younger brother): At 13-years-old, George was about 6ft 2in, 200lb and the terrorist in the neighbourhood. And when you're bigger and stronger and think you're better than everyone else, you take things.

He might take your bicycle, not because he liked riding but because he could; he might take your cigarettes; the only reason he wouldn't take your clothes was because he was so big. He carried that fierceness all the way to the ring. He always said he wanted to kill somebody in the ring. And I believed him.

George Foreman: Sonny Liston was the first fighter I'd met who'd been heavyweight champion and I figured I was going to copy his behaviour. But Liston was nice compared to me.

George Foreman with trainer Dick Sadler
Jim Brown: "I was supposed to do a news piece with George, where I would put some gloves on and get in the ring with him. But I saw him hitting the heavy bag and said: 'I'm not getting in the ring with that.'"

After becoming heavyweight champion of the world, I'd sacrificed so much and was so lonely that I actually became mean - I became that person. There was a viciousness that a boxer should never have. I didn't like boxing, I hated it, it was just something I could do - I could hit a guy anywhere and they'd go down.

Even after I suffered the cut [the fight was originally set for 25 September but Foreman injured his right eye in sparring and the date was pushed back to 30 October], I felt such superiority. Even with only one good eye I felt like I could knock him out in three rounds at the most. I had no fear.

Jim Brown (NFL legend and fight co-commentator for US TV): When George arrived in Zaire, the people really gave him a hard time. But they loved what Muhammad stood for and he loved them.

Sometimes he'd say: 'Let's go walking.' I'd say: 'Walking where?!' He'd say: 'Let's just go walking and talk to the people.' I'd say: 'What are we going to talk to them about?!' He was never too big for the people. Whoever you were, to Muhammad you were a human being and he'd treat you correctly.

George Foreman: It's history being rewritten again. Those African people treated me as kindly as I'd ever been treated - they just treated Muhammad Ali extra kind. They never made me feel as though they didn't like me. As a matter of fact, some would come to me before the fight and say: 'Please win.'

Ricky Hatton analysis
"Ali would have been scared. He would have been terrified. Even though he believes he can do it, there's still doubt there and that's the case with all fighters. Once the fight started, I reckon George was thinking: 'Ultimately I'll get him, I will get him eventually.' That's all George had ever known."

Jim Brown: Before the fight, I was supposed to do a news piece with George, where I would put some gloves on and get in the ring with him. But I saw George hitting the heavy bag and said: 'Nope, I'm not getting in the ring with that.'

When I got to Ali's camp I said: 'Hey, you're my friend and I love you but I don't think you can beat that guy.' Ali and Angelo Dundee [Ali's trainer] looked at me and said: 'You're crazy, we're gonna knock him out!'

Gene Kilroy: We'd watched all of Foreman's fights. When we watched Frazier get knocked down [Frazier was floored six times in losing the world heavyweight crown to Foreman in 1973], Ali would say: 'Play it back, play it back, watch him lean on the ropes when he gets back to the neutral corner - no stamina!

'Wait until he hears "round three… round four… round five…" Big George is gonna be out of gas and there are no gas stations out here!'

George Foreman: We hardly saw one another before the fight and I never saw any of his interviews that were being fed back to America and Europe. So he never said anything that got under my skin - until we got in the ring…

Don King, President Mobutu and Muhammad Ali
Ali and promoter Don King meet with Mobutu Sese Seko, the corrupt president of what was then Zaire

Gene Kilroy: I went into George's dressing room and I could smell death in the air. I went back to Ali and he said: 'What's he saying?' I said: 'They're talking about putting your kids into an orphanage.' Ali said: 'I can't wait to get him.'

Right before the fight, Ali got a phone call from Elijah Muhammad [leader of the Nation of Islam, of which Ali was a member], who said: 'How can Foreman beat you? You've got Allah on your side!' That was Ali's booster rocket, that's why he had no fear.

Cus D'Amato [who trained heavyweight world champions Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson] told Ali: 'Fear is like fire - it can burn your house down or it can cook for you. Foreman is a bully - you must throw the first punch.'

Foreman came out after the first bell with his fists clenched and Ali hit him so hard in the jaw, it turned the lights out for four minutes. Foreman thought: 'What is this?' He couldn't intimidate Ali and Ali became the bully.

George Foreman: He threw the first shot, but after that he was clever enough to hold. I kept hitting him, and hitting him hard, and he kept holding and holding. I hit him with some amazing punches that would have sent most guys to sleep. But when the bell went and he went back to his corner, he was like: 'My God, I did it.'

David Haye analysis
"No-one practices missing punches on a punch bag - you're not conditioned to miss, you're conditioned to land. So when someone makes you miss, you're running out of steam and you're getting disheartened because you can't land. So then you try to shorten your punches or punch in a different way and it messes up your game."

Jim Brown: After the first round, Ali came over and said: 'Hey big fella, what do you think now?!'

Colin Hart: The vast majority of boxing writers thought that not only would Ali be beaten, but there was every chance he would end up in hospital. I was the only British writer to pick Ali to win, because I'd been told Foreman had no stamina.

This fight was played out in 80 degree heat, with a great deal of humidity. And nobody had ever knocked Ali out. So I fathomed that he would dance and let Foreman tire himself out. I got the result right, the tactics wrong.

George Foreman: Muhammad Ali didn't have the best punch, he wasn't the strongest, but he was the toughest human being I ever had an encounter with. This I'm certain of.

He wasn't saying a lot but in round three I hit him with a hard shot to the side and he fell on me and said: 'That all you got, George?!' That scared me, I knew there was going to be trouble then.

George Foreman and Muhammad Ali
Gene Kilroy: "Anybody can beat a heavy bag but when you're getting hit back, frustrated and abused, it takes your heart away. Ali came to the corner after round six and said: 'I got him now, I got him now…'"

He had weathered the biggest storm I could have put on him and after the fourth round it was like I'd stepped into a bucket of concrete. I was all spent, I didn't know what I was doing out there.

Roy Foreman: From the fourth round, it was like looking at a 100m runner in a 400m race. The punches got a little bit slower and you could see Ali's confidence increase. I'd never seen George intimidated by anyone before, except his mother maybe.

Gene Kilroy: When we put the ring together we made sure the ropes were tight but they expanded in the heat. When he started leaning back on the ropes [Ali's so-called 'rope-a-dope' tactics, whereby Foreman was invited to pound away at him], we were afraid Ali would fall out of the ring.

So between rounds five and six, Pat Patterson [Ali's bodyguard] got in the ring and tightened the ropes. Later George said we tried to loosen them so Ali could have more room, but that's a misconception.

Colin Hart: Watching the fifth and sixth rounds, you could see Foreman clearly getting weaker and weaker. He was still punching but the punches weren't hurting Ali like they were in the earlier rounds, he was running out of gas very fast indeed.

Carl Froch analysis
"When everybody thinks you can't do it, you're going to lose and your time is up, to then go in there and do what Ali did on such a big platform, that's a fantastic performance. He took a beating, he got hit with a lot of hurtful shots. I didn't realise what a tough man Ali was."

And Ali was capitalising on it, as only he could, with brilliant counter-punching. It was around this time I thought: 'There's going to be a major upset here, my man's going to do it.' Foreman had shot his bolt by then, he had no strength left.

Gene Kilroy: I knew we had it after round six. Anybody can beat a heavy bag but when you're getting hit back, being frustrated and abused, it takes your heart away. Ali came to the corner after round six and said: 'I got him now, I got him now…'

When the end came [Ali floored Foreman with a devastating combination at the end of round eight], Ali didn't hit him as he was falling. I asked him afterwards: 'Why didn't you hit him on the way down?' Ali said: 'He'd had enough.'

Colin Hart: After the knockout, I did something that I was a bit ashamed of, because it was unprofessional. I tell young sportswriters: 'No cheering in the press box.' But when Ali won that fight I leapt out of my seat and punched the air.

Jim Brown: After the fight I went to Ali's dressing room and there were all these people in there, you couldn't move. I went to George's dressing room and it was George, [light-heavyweight legend] Archie Moore and George's dog.

Kids in Kinshasa
The bout was the first heavyweight world title fight to be held in Africa. Most Zaireans wanted an Ali win

Roy Foreman: Back then, being the heavyweight champion of the world was like being the president of the United States. Now George was the former president of the United States. Everyone from your girlfriend to your brothers and sisters don't look at you the same, now you've got 'ex' in front of your name.

It took him eight to 10 years to get over the devastation. He'd made $5m, a lot back then, so he was buying this and buying that - another house, another car, getting this girl, getting that girl, trying to show everybody he was still the champ. But he wasn't the champ, he was the chump now.

George Foreman: I just couldn't believe I'd lost the world title. This was supposed to be an easy boxing match but it was the most embarrassing moment of my life. It went from pride to pity. That's devastating.

I'd be ashamed to be alone with girls in a room. I'd think: 'They know I'm not the man I was supposed to be.' You think you're going to walk away with $5m and everything is going to be OK. But you can't buy back your pride. All you want is the chance to be champion of the world again.

I've watched the fight back a few times and sometimes I think: 'I'm gonna win this time!' Or I might wake up and think: 'If only I'd done this or done that.' But only once did I win the fight in my dreams…

Jerry Izenberg: About an hour after the fight finished we had such a torrential downpour. Then, suddenly, the sun came up - one of those big African sunrises - and we all jumped on a bus and went back to the military compound where all the journalists were staying.

Three of us went to look for Ali and found him staring out at the river. Just staring. For once, three sportswriters had the good sense and brains not to open their damn mouths. We let him drink it in.

Eventually he turned around, walked towards us, raised his arms in the air and said: 'You fellas will never know how much this means to me.' At that moment, he truly was the king of the world.

History's most seismic fights
John L Sullivan v Jim Corbett (1892): Sullivan was the last bare-knuckled world heavyweight champion and an early sporting celebrity. But fighting with gloves, under Marquess of Queensberry Rules, the scientific Corbett made Sullivan look old-fashioned before knocking him out in round 21
Jack Johnson v Jim Jeffries (1910): When Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world in 1908, white America was aghast. Former champion Jeffries was nominated 'The Great White Hope' and when Johnson easily beat him, race riots were triggered and many were killed
Joe Louis v Max Schmeling (1938): Louis lost to Schmeling in 1936 but the rematch was about more than personal revenge. Schmeling was an (unwilling) totem of Nazism on the eve of World War II and the fight symbolised the struggle between fascism and democracy. Louis won by first-round knockout
Joe Frazier v Muhammad Ali (1971): Ali was stripped of his title in 1967, having refused to be enlisted in the US Army. When he returned after more than three years in the wilderness, Frazier was the champion. 'The Fight' was a world-wide sensation and Frazier won it after 15 brutal rounds

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