On a humid African night the boxers, jokers, cutsmen, chancers, dancers, crooners, stoned, broke and foolish poured off the plane for the Rumble in the Jungle In 1974. It was simply, the fight, man.
There are few living and working survivors from that unforgettable fighting pilgrimage. Yet so much of the truth from that dawn – when Muhammad Ali’s miracle fists convicted George Foreman to ten years in the wilderness – has been lost to time and liars.
This week the boxing caravan – essentially a sober mix of the same parade of wandering cowboys – will be camped on the outskirts of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia for Saturday night’s rematch between Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua. It is a fight that nobody could have conjured in any type of dream or nightmare before 9pm on June 1st 2019. Not before the first bell that led to the ruin of the heavyweight landscape with a truly shock result.
It was an ending to rival the beautiful magic of the Rumble. Ali really did change the sport that morning. And Ruiz left it in a similar state of disbelief.
On that night at Madison Square Garden in New York, Ruiz won in seven rounds, while Joshua was over four times. It was chaos: all scripts for glory left in tatters as soiled confetti fell to the floor. No future certain. Everybody walking in a daze. And from that glorious unpredictable lunacy a deal was done for the rematch in a place of stunning beauty called Diriyah. A stadium for 15,000 was built: the stars for a black desert night sky have been ordered and the fantasy will take place against a backdrop of bewilderment. Many have questioned the location.
The Rumble, remember, was sponsored by Mobutu Sese Seko, a leader with a horrific history, and on his orders thieves were slaughtered like rabid dogs during the occupation of Zaire, as it was then known. Everybody heard about the round-up of the petty villains and their ominous fate. However, Ali, Foreman, their handlers and the encamped horde of hopeful scribes gently adjusted their blinkers and rose-tinted goggles during the countdown to the first bell. Some had even glimpsed the slaughter pit at the national stadium where the hastily convicted men were executed.
Back in June, Joshua had been champion for 37 months, had made six defences and was unbeaten in 22 fights. But that was before Ruiz refused to stay down, caught him on the temple and suddenly looked like a marauding Mexican version of Rocky Marciano – the undefeated heavyweight champion from the Fifties and a lethal finisher. Joshua was helpless, lost on his heavy legs and out of his mind when it was halted. On the night Joshua swore in praise of the fight’s ferocity and then vanished without leaving a trail of answers to the questions. That reticence is to his great credit, especially now that there is a steady narrative that he quit and that his ticker is perhaps not as stout as it might be.
It is, I passionately believe, a false trail.
In many ways, Ruiz arrived in Saudi Arabia as the foreign fighter – the Foreman in this modern tale – and has gently reminded everybody that he was also the selected “body” back in New York, a man chosen to lose in the four-cornered abattoir. He is a bit slimmer now, a lot richer and insists he is a better fighter.
“He never wanted to continue the last time, it will be the same this time,” says Ruiz. The bookies still fancy Joshua in a fight for the three belts he lost in the Garden ring.
However, redemption in the boxing business is often complicated and the history of rematches is equally troublesome. There is absolutely no science attachable to boxing – there never has been and there never will be. This week, with days of commitments and adjustments for both touring boxers, there might be a few signs. In New York we all missed them. We missed the concealed turmoil in Joshua’s life. We are wiser now and that is very much the prescription for Joshua at the start of the most important week of his life.
Steve Bunce will be part of BBC Five Live’s broadcasting team for Andy Ruiz Jr vs Anthony Joshua II.