On the 30th of October 1974 George Foreman, the reigning professional heavyweight boxing champion of the world, stepped into a ring in Kinshasa, Zaire to defend his title against former champion Muhammad Ali. What happened next has entered sporting folklore as arguably the most famous fight of all time, the Rumble in the Jungle.
But of course as this is a blog concerning the Olympic Games we’ll choose to dwell on another aspect of the match – that of it being one of the rare instances where two Olympic champions have fought each other for the World Heavyweight title. Boxing became an Olympic sport in 1904 and, with the exception of 1912, has remained in the Games ever since but in that span of 110 years only eleven times have two Olympic champions met for what is regularly described as “the greatest prize in professional sport”.
So when exactly has this happened? The answer is below. The list is restricted to generally accepted versions of the titles. Of the 11 instances documented, 6 involve Muhammad Ali.
#1 22/8/1957 Floyd Patterson KO 6 Pete Rademacher
Floyd Patterson, the champion at middleweight in Helsinki in 1952 at just 17, became the youngest ever heavyweight champion whilst still only 21. As many of the leading contenders for the title were under the control of the International Boxing Club of New York (which had links to organised crime) Patterson’s handlers shied from fighting them and were inventive in choosing opponents.
Pete Rademacher had won the heavyweight gold medal at the Melbourne Games nine months before he faced Patterson for the title and, amazingly, this was to be his professional debut. Rademacher started well, winning the first round then putting Patterson on the canvas in the second but Patterson recovered and battered his way to an emphatic six round victory.
#2 22/11/1965 Muhammad Ali TKO 12 Floyd Patterson
Patterson, having lost his world title via a crushing defeat to Sonny Liston had rebounded well enough to earn a shot at Muhammad Ali, who as Cassius Clay, had won the Olympic light-heavyweight title in 1960. Patterson injured his back in training but refused to pull out of the fight. Accepted history records that Ali “mocked, humiliated and punished Patterson throughout before knocking him out in the 12th round” but an interview with Ali conducted post-fight revealed that Ali, knowing Floyd was in serious pain through his injury, backed off and waited for the fight to be stopped or for Patterson to retire.
#3 8/3/1971 Joe Frazier Pts 15 Muhammad Ali
“The Fight of the Century”, as it was called, pitted Ali, who was back in the ring after being stripped of his belt and suspended after refusing the draft, with the 1964 Olympic heavyweight champion, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier. It was a fight that lived up to the hype as the two men traded blow for blow before a celebrity studded Madison Square Garden crowd. Frazier scored a knockdown in the final round to seal victory.
#4 22/1/1973 George Foreman TKO 2 Joe Frazier
Kingston, Jamaica saw the “Immovable Object”, reigning heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, go head to head with the “Irresistible Force” in the shape of 1968 Olympic heavyweight champion George Foreman. Unfortunately for him, Frazier proved all too movable and mostly in the downwards direction. The champion was sent to the canvas six times before the referee proclaimed Foreman the winner. In American television this fight was famous for Howard Cosell, announcing it, who kept proclaiming, after each knockdown, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”. This was the 1st time two Olympic heavyweight champions had met for the professional heavyweight title.
#5 30/10/1974 Muhammad Ali KO 8 George Foreman
This is where we came in. In the unlikely setting of a football stadium in downtown Kinshasa, Zaire, one of the famous events not just in boxing but in all sports, took place. Foreman, considered a monster of the ring, was the clear favourite against the older Ali but after dominating the early exchanges he ran out of steam and Ali took advantage to record a stunning knockout victory. 40 years later it remains a landmark in sporting history.
#6 1/10/1975 Muhammad Ali TKO 14 Joe Frazier
Ali and Frazier had fought a rematch in 1974 with Ali gaining revenge via a unanimous points decision. After Ali regained the heavyweight title later that year it became inevitable that a third match between the two would take place. The fight would take place in Manila in October 1975 and is widely considered to be one of the best, and certainly most brutal, bouts in history. In the 14th round, with both men nearing the point of total exhaustion, Ali unleashed a devastating series of punches which led to Frazier retiring in his corner between rounds. Neither man was ever the same again. The two men had been mutually antagonistic throughout their careers but after the fight Ali commented – “Fighting Joe Frazier is the closest to death I can ever imagine. If I’m ever called to a Holy War I want Joe Frazier fighting besides me.”
#7 15/2/1978 Leon Spinks Pts 15 Muhammad Ali
#8 15/9/1978 Muhammad Ali Pts 15 Leon Spinks
Now in the twilight of his career, Ali arranged what seemed like a routine defence against the 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight champion Leon Spinks. In the first meeting Spinks turned up fit and hungry and in only his 8th professional fight used his youth and fitness to finish strongly and win a split decision victory over a subdued and listless Ali. Seven months later and the tide had turned in the favour of the old champion. Spinks, by then in the early stages of drink and drug dependency, was easily outpointed by a better prepared Ali.
#9 16/3/2002 Wladimir Klitschko TKO 6 Ray Mercer
After a gap of 23 years two Olympic champions stepped into the ring to battle for the heavyweight title once again in 2002. The occasion was a defence of the WBO title by Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko, the 1996 Olympic super-heavyweight gold medal winner, against Ray Mercer, winner of the Olympic title at heavyweight back in 1988. The 41 year old Mercer was expected to be little more than a sacrificial victim for the younger man and that’s exactly how it turned out. The referee stepped in to protect Mercer from further punishment in round 6.
#10 5/10/2013 Wladimir Klitschko Pts 12 Aleksandr Povetkin
The bout matched Wladimir Klitschko, who held the IBF and WBO world titles as well as the WBA “Super-World” title with Alexander Povetkin of Russia who merely held the WBA “regular” World Heavyweight title (confusing, but that’s modern professional boxing…). Anyone who’s ever read a comic book will tell you that Superman always beat Regularman and that is exactly what happened in their bout in Moscow. Klitschko won every round and knocked his opponent down four times on his way to a totally one sided victory. He continued to be the best heavyweight in the world for another few years
#11 29/4/2017 Anthony Joshua TKO 11 Wladimir Klitschko
Klitschko, after losing his world titles to Tyson Fury in 2015, returned to the ring to challenge 2012 Olympic super-heavyweight champion Joshua for the IBF and WBA titles.
For the first time in this list the venue, Wembley Stadium, had itself hosted Olympic Games events five years earlier. After a cautious opening Joshua sent the Ukrainian to the canvas in round 5 but, despite being the younger man by more than a decade, he exhausted himself in the process and was knocked down by Klitschko in the following round. The British fighter recovered and in the penultimate round of the scheduled twelve he again went for the knockout. The referee was forced to stop the fight with Klitschko helpless on the ropes after getting up from his second knockdown of the round.