Next month will be the 40th anniversary of "The Rumble in the Jungle," the legendary boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. One of the biggest sporting events in history, it was viewed by tens of thousands live in Kinsasha, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and by million more around the world, including those at the some 450 closed-circuit locations in the US. These spectators would view one of the great boxing performances of all time as the underdog Ali employed the "rope-a-dope" strategy to wear down the much bigger and younger Foreman before finishing him in dramatic fashion.
Fifteen years ago today, mixed martial arts hosted its own version of "The Rumble in the Jungle." On September 24, 1999, at The Ultimate Fighting Championship XXII, Frank Shamrock defended his middleweight (199 pounds) title against challenger Tito Ortiz.
Mixed martial arts at that time was in what is now referred to as its "Dark Ages." It was a time when the sport was demonized as "human cockfighting," faced heavy scrutiny by lawmakers, had been removed from the air by most pay-per-view providers, and events were no longer even being released to video stores, one of the primary methods for fans to follow the sport at the time. For Shamrock and Ortiz, there was no packed stadium, worldwide audience, or the glare of mainstream media attention. There was only the few thousand in attendance and a few thousand more lucky enough to see it on the few cable outlets that would air it.
While there can be no comparison between the scope of the two events, there is a remarkable similarity between the fights themselves. In both contests a younger, much bigger fighter was heavily favored against their older, smaller opponent. Most strikingly was how Ali and Shamrock, both of whom can lay claim to being the greatest fighters of their generations, unveiled similar strategies that caught their opponents and the viewers completely off guard.
In Zaire, Ali was content to lean against the ropes allowing the rope's elasticity to absorb the power of Foreman's blows until he finally punched himself out. At UFC 22 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Shamrock didn't resist as Ortiz took him down time and time again. He was content fighting off his back for 16 minutes, forcing Ortiz to work the whole time. The end for both was a dramatic finish, as the younger man, now exhausted, was unable to resist the older man's onslaught.
For boxing it was one of the most storied matches in history. For MMA, it was a glimpse into the future of what the sport would become, but it is not remembered for that, or anything else for that matter. There will be no celebration honoring the event as there will be for "The Rumble in the Jungle." The only thing reminding us today that it ever took place might be the recollections of Frank Shamrock himself.
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