The Rumble in Reykjavik

This post will be dedicated to the two of the greatest competitive sports events of the 20th century. I will also reveal how, despite appearing to be the polar opposites, the two sport codes involved can in fact be combined.

What makes a good spectacle great is the build-up. Two athletes competing for the sporting accolades may capture the interest of the public for an hour or two while a dramatic build-up will keep us all pinned to our seats for weeks. But what makes a great show outstanding is the asymmetric aspect of the competition. Ancient Romans knew it when they pitted agile net-fighters against armored gladiators armed with a sword (or Christians against the lions – but this is a different story!). Watching competitors with different skill sets and using different techniques is simply more captivating than a fight of two clones. The sporting events I am going to cover today had both of the above characteristics – the build-up and asymmetry.

Reykjavik, early July 1972. The World is watching intently as the match for the World Chess Championship is about to get underway. The contenders represent the political divide of the Cold War. The defending champion, Boris Spassky, is an embodiment of the purported superiority of the Soviet way of life. Communism claimed to produce more intelligent and purposeful human beings than the decadent West. Challenging him is the brilliant, eccentric and unpredictable Bobby Fischer. The massive, propaganda driven Soviet chess machine is taken on by a lonely genius from Brooklyn, a man obsessed from early age to beat it.

But the match was close to being called off when Fischer refused to turn up unless his escalating demands were met. He wanted more money and also changes to the rules of the competition. After some high level mediation Fischer flies into Reykjavik but skips the opening ceremony. He then loses the first game and forfeits the second over his demands regarding the placement of the TV cameras. The match is in jeopardy but Spassky magnanimously agrees to Fischer’s demands and the third game is played in the back boom, behind the main stage. Fisher wins, then draws the 4th game and wins again in the 5th. The 6th game was the most memorable of the match and you owe it to yourself to watch the expert commentary of it:

After the game 6 Spassky’s resolve was broken and Fischer eventually won the match by a score of 12.5:8.5. The drama and controversy on and off the chessboard made this match one of the most outstanding sporting events ever.

Kinshasa, October 1974. Two giants of heavyweight boxing meet in the ring to fight for the World Champion belt. Muhammad Ali (born as Cassius Clay) first became the World champion in 1964. But in 1967 he refused to be conscripted into US Army and was eventually imprisoned and stripped of his title. He regained his boxing license in 1970 and in 1974 challenged the reigning champion George Foreman in a fight promoted as “the Rumble in the Jungle”.

Foreman in many ways was Ali’s opposite, which made the bout so interesting. At 24 he was 8 years younger than Ali. He had a devastating punch – something Ali was expected to counter with a superior skill and mobility. Foreman was also clearly not as articulate as Ali so the two fighters who entered the ring in Kinshasa had both the contrasting boxing styles and personalities. Again, do yourself a favour and watch the full broadcast of this outstanding boxing bout (it starts around 21:00):

The way the fight unfolded could not have been more dramatic had it been scripted. Ali started by poking Foreman with a straight right without using left jab. In later rounds Ali lent against the ropes and took Foreman’s punches on the body and guard – a risky strategy against a younger and more powerful boxer. But, most notably, he kept taunting Foreman with lines like “Is that all you got, George? They told me you could hit.” In the end Foreman tired and was dropped by Ali in the 8th round to end the bout.

Ok – so we have two outstandingly dramatic sporting events in two sporting codes which look like the polar opposites. But if you thought that boxing and chess could not be combined into one event you would be wrong. Chessboxing is an emerging sport which even has World Championships. A chessboxing bout consists of 11 rounds – 6 games of fast chess interspersed with 5 rounds of actual boxing. Either a knock-out of check-mate ends the fight, otherwise a points decision is awarded.

The Rumble in Reykjavik? You bet!


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