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'There Will Never Be Another': George Foreman Remembers Muhammad Ali

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We start today remembering a man who was many things - an activist, a draft resistor, a showman, a butterfly, a bee, a champion - Muhammad Ali. He died last night at age 74. Ali was three-time world heavyweight boxing champ. And maybe his most famous fight - people will debate this - but maybe the most famous was the so-called Rumble in the Jungle held in Kinshasa, in the country then known as Zaire. In front of a crowd of 60,000, Muhammad Ali stole back the world heavyweight title.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB SHERIDAN: This is an incredible thing. The place is going wild. Muhammad Ali has won by a knockdown, by a knockdown.

KELLY: The man he knocked down was another boxing titan, George Foreman. And we called Foreman today to ask how he remembers that fight.

George Foreman, it's great to speak to you. I'm sorry it's under these circumstances.

GEORGE FOREMAN: Yeah, lost - a giant tree just fell and Muhammad Ali - there'll never be another.

KELLY: Tell me - you know, I think probably the most famous moment that many of us will remember was the Rumble in the Jungle where the two of you were in the ring back in 1974. Take us back to that and what it is like to step into the ring with Muhammad Ali.

FOREMAN: Well, it was a strange event because I had beaten Joe Frazier who of course had beaten Muhammad Ali. I'd knocked out Ken Norton who had beaten him. So this, for me, I thought, could be the easiest money I'd ever get in boxing.

KELLY: (Laughter) And you were wrong.

FOREMAN: Yeah. Boy, I got into the ring, and I hit him with everything I had. He survived, and after about six rounds, he started whispering, that all you got, George? Show me something, George. And I knew this was a frightful moment. And I kept thinking I've gotten myself into more than I realized.

KELLY: How many times did the two of you meet? How many times did you fight?

FOREMAN: Muhammad Ali and I fought once. I lost the world heavyweight title to him. We never fought again.

KELLY: That was it - the one time.

FOREMAN: And that was enough for me.

KELLY: (Laughter) Yeah, I can see that.

FOREMAN: Yes.

KELLY: So I saw you tweeted today - Ali, Frazier and Foreman, we were one guy.

FOREMAN: That's true. And I realize a part of me slipped away, and I called it the greatest part - Muhammad Ali because it was he who made me glimpse into boxing, same with Frazier. We looked into boxing by way of Muhammad Ali and then there we were talking about each other, boasting about each other, trying to knock one another out. We were one fellow. We really were.

My life is never going to be the same without having to look to the left seeing did Muhammad hear my interview? Did - what did he have to say about that photograph? It's gone now. A piece of me is gone forever.

KELLY: What did you learn from him as a boxer?

FOREMAN: What I learned from Muhammad Ali is that he was one of the most conditioned athletes in the world. But to put him down as a boxer would be really not good because he was bigger than boxing, bigger than sports as a matter of fact. He went into the ring, and he didn't lose because he was fighting for a lot more than just a championship belt and a few dollars in his pocket. He had a cause. He really had a cause.

KELLY: What kind of legacy do you think he leaves for young guys getting into the sport today, young boxers now?

FOREMAN: He left a legacy that for all athletes - I heard him say that he wanted to be more than just a boxer. And let me tell you, he was. In most everyone he's going to leave a message - be more than just what you do.

KELLY: We've been talking to people on the show today, and I'm hearing a lot of people say he left a legacy as a boxer, also as a trailblazer for African-Americans.

FOREMAN: Don't put him in that little pocket of one. The man was a great man beyond anything as far as color. You go to Europe, you see guys could put up on a better imitation of Muhammad Ali than someone from Louisville, Ky. And I sold worldwide over one 120 million George Foreman grills, and I've traveled the world and people have whispered in my ear from every corner of the earth Ali, Ali. I said, oh my goodness, over here, too?

KELLY: (Laughter).

FOREMAN: He was the greatest. He was the greatest, and most of them never saw a boxing match.

KELLY: But they knew who he was.

FOREMAN: They knew who he was. When you say the word Ali, it would do something to your heart and make you feel a certain thing.

KELLY: George Foreman, thank you for your talking to us, and I'm sorry for the loss of your dear friend.

FOREMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.