Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
Maybe don't throw the punch?
A fight and a friendship, and why it matters. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
In 1974, Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Sixty thousand people were in the stands. Nearly 1 billion people tuned in worldwide, largely on pay-per-view. The fight was at 4:30 a.m. local time, so people could watch during prime time in the United States, and it was the second-largest audience ever at the time, next to the Apollo 11 moon landing).
It truly was one of the biggest spectacles ever on television. The pre-fight show in Kinshasa was set to include James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, and other big-time acts of the time. For context, this was during a time when the halftime act at the Super Bowl was still a college marching band.
(Asterisk, however: The music festival went as planned, but the fight itself was delayed due to Foreman having been cut during training, so it wasn't actually all the same day.)
Now, I didn't see this fight at the time. For one thing, I was 4 years old, and I doubt my parents would have considered it appropriate. Also, even with the time zone adjustment, I’m pretty sure it was past my bedtime.
But, I got into boxing for a while when I was more of a grownup, and of course I watched the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. And, there’s something about it all that I think is suddenly relevant today.
Coming into the match, Foreman was the champion and heavily favored. Ali was a former champion, but he'd lost his titles during the four years that he'd been suspended from boxing while he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
The two men were very antagonistic toward each other: tons of trash-talking.
Plus, as When We Were Kings shows, Ali did a masterful job of getting the people of Zaire and Africa writ large in his corner as the underdog, and making Foreman seem the villain.
Then, the fight itself was brutal. (It can be hard to watch today on video.)
Ultimately one of Ali's tactics was to lean on the ropes while covering up his head and other vital areas, and let Foreman throw punch after punch that hit Ali in the arms or body. I'm sure this hurt like heck—literally hundreds of punches—but it also tired Foreman out without earning many points.
Ali later called this the “rope a dope” strategy. By the eighth round, Ali had the advantage, and he came back hard at Foreman, eventually knocking him down and winning the fight.
This is the moment that stands out, and frankly it’s why I’m writing about it more than 47 years later. It’s about the one additional punch Ali didn't throw, when he saw Foreman was beaten.
I'll let Foreman himself explain:
"Probably the best punch of the whole fight was never landed. Muhammad Ali, as I was going down - stumbling and trying to hold myself - he saw me stumbling.
Ordinarily, you finish your fighter off. I would have. He got ready to throw the right hand and he didn't do it. That's what made him, in my mind, the greatest fighter I ever fought."
The images of this fight have stayed with me — well, maybe longer than is healthy. (Actually, I remembered while writing this it was used as a metaphor during an episode of The West Wing.)
Regardless, it came up in a call I did with an Understandably subscriber yesterday.
I think it’s on my mind a lot because it demonstrates something that’s missing in a lot of American life these days: the art of winning gracefully and literally not punching down—or really, throwing punches at all (literally or figuratively) without a really good reason.
Maybe you know what happened to both of these fighters afterward: In short, Ali won the crown and Foreman eventually retired.
But then, Foreman became a born-again Christian and a minister, and Ali—who was Muslim, of course—called him out of the blue to encourage him to fight again, in part because winning the championship once more would give him a much larger audience for his ministry.
I’m summing up a lot of this quickly, but Foreman did come back—and became the heavyweight champion once more at age 45. He and Ali became very close friends until Ali’s death in 2016.
I don’t know: Two men who fought a war of words before literally pummeling each other in front of the world’s biggest audience, and yet still found a way to become allies and friends when it was all over?
Seems like there’s a lesson in there worth remembering.
And much like Ali not throwing the punch, maybe I don’t have to keep going much more here to make the point.
Programming note: I’m going to suspend the phone/preview edition of the newsletter that I’d been doing, at least for the moment. After a ton of reader calls at the start, not that many people have called in over the last few days, to be honest.
I’ll hold onto the number and use it for announcements, though. Maybe we’ll bring it back if there’s demand. This is what happens when we do everything transparently and in real time!
7 other things worth knowing today
At least 43 inmates have died in a prison riot in Ecuador, about 50 miles from the capital of Quito. A total of 108 inmates escaped during the riot, which is the result of gang warfare. Another 112 were recaptured. (BBC)
A former jail official from Alabama has died after she and an escaped inmate were tracked to Indiana, officials said. Corrections officer Vicky White shot herself, according to officials, and died at a local hospital; Casey White, who was serving a 75-year prison sentence and who also faced charges in an additional murder, was taken into custody. The two had been the target of a nationwide manhunt since April 29. (CNN)
Members of the US Senate passed a bipartisan bill Monday that would expand security protection to the immediate family members of Supreme Court justices, following protests at some justices' homes regarding the leaked draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (CNN)
In Louisiana, a bill to charge any woman who has an abortion with murder passed a state House committee with a 7-2 vote, "and has a good chance to make it to the governor’s desk" according to local TV news. The state's leading anti-abortion advocate now says he opposes the idea. (WAFB, The Advertiser)
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. clinched a stunning runaway victory in the Philippines' presidential election on Monday in the first win by a majority since a 1986 revolution that toppled his late father's two-decade dictatorship and sent his family into a humiliating 36-year exile. "I hope you won't get tired of trusting us," Marcos told supporters in remarks streamed on Facebook, a platform at the core of his political strategy. (Reuters)
President Biden signed a bill that aims to streamline U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Separately: How Russian oligarchs are sailing their yachts from Europe to Turkey to avoid sanctions. (CNBC, France24)
This must be very hard for some parents right now: Stores are struggling to stock enough baby formula, and reports are it's only going to get worse this summer. The FDA says it's "working around the clock" to address the shortage, but manufacturers say they're already at full capacity. (CNN)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Public domain. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.