The Rumble in the Jungle was the epic battle for the heavyweight boxing championship beteween George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. They met in the nation of Zaire in October of 1974.
The story of that fight keeps coming to mind as I think about the race for the nomination. It's a sports analogy, sure. But the 'sweet science' of boxing is both beautiful and hideously ugly, a paradox we political junkies can all relate to.
At the close of the press conference in response to Hillary Clinton's Cincinnati tirade, Barack Obama called Hillary 'The Champ.' Someone had asked him if there was a double standard after his ten blowout victories. If it was reversed, wouldn't he be called on to step aside and recognize Hillary as the nominee?
He didn't take the bait. He said, probably, sure. But it's all fair because she comes in as a type of incumbent, with a lot of institutional support. She's "The Champ" and you don't beat The Champ by decision. You have to win by knockout.
This comment by Obama didn't get much mention for some reason. But I think it was very revealing both in how he sees this fight and in how it's going to wind up.
In Zaire, Muhammad Ali faced an oppressively powerful force in the ring. He had never faced the reigning heavyweight world champion, George Foreman but two of his former opponents had.
Ali had lost two fights in his career, to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Both of those fighters had since fought Foreman and gotten destroyed. Foreman was in his prime, punched like a tank and was extemely hard to hurt.
Ali was the popular favorite. He was charming and enigmatic and people liked him more. But he was outmatched in terms of punching power by a long shot. Going in, there was almost no reason to believe Ali wasn't about to face an enormous beating.
And he did take a beating. Foreman, looking massive next to Ali, dished out body blow after body blow. He genuinely hurt Ali, who managed to stay on his feet, even when he had to lean back into the ropes to do it. Fans watching the fight assumed it was just a matter of time until Ali would topple. No one had ever stood up to this much punishment from Foreman.
Here's when I thought of this fight in terms of the race for the nomination. It was in the last debate when they showed the film clip of Hillary's performance on the stump where she mocks Obama. The 'Light will shine down, we'll all just get along,' bit. It was pretty scathing and cringe-inducing to show that with the two of them sitting next to each other. And it pretty much describes the main thrust of her attack on him.
They cut back to the table and Obama is smiling from ear to ear. The single beat of tension in the room breaks as he says, "Sounds good!" And he got the laugh from the crowd.
While Hillary herself laughed, her moment was actually turned back on her like a fighter who swings wild with a punch and suddenly takes a sharp jab to the nose. If politcs is punching, Obama connected with the jab.
That's when the image of Ali came to me. It was the smile. Because in the ring with Foreman that night in Africa, Ali was smiling at the champ. As Foreman was hitting him with everything he had, Ali was talking to him.
"Is that all ya got George?" "They told me you could punch George."
And Foreman got really angry. He threw the kitchen sink at Ali, round after round. He seemed to have all the advantages, the weight, the punching power, the undefeated record, even the anger.
But he didn't knock Ali down. In the midst of the beating Ali would occasionally connect with a sharp jab or a quick combination. He was starting to mess up Foreman's face, which just enraged the champ even more.
By the eigth round, Foreman was punched out. He had spent everything he had and he found himself, deep into the fight, dazed and bleeding in the ring with a dangerous fighter. Ali came off the ropes like a cat and connected with a combination of lightning blows that sent Foreman into the canvass for the knockout.
And that's where I see this going. That's where it has been going for a long time and March 4 was just another round.
Barack Obama came into this thing outmatched in a lot of ways. Hillary had all the advantages. She was going to throw the haymakers at him on SuperTuesday. The one-two punch of California and New York both voting on the same day. It was reported as a win for her but we know what happened. Obama layed into the ropes and took the blows and then connected with some surprise sharp jabs of his own.
March 4 was another rope-a-dope. She was going to blast him with the big delegate states again. The observers, the pundits, are so impressed with her power in those states. She connected and they can't help celebrating. But she didn't come close to knocking him down.
Now watch him come off the ropes again.