The heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George
Foreman in Zaire on Oct. 30, 1974--”The Rumble in the Jungle”--is enshrined as
one of the great sports events of the century. It was also a cultural and
Into the capital of Kinshasa flew planeloads of performers for
an “African Woodstock,” TV crews, Howard Cosell at the head of an international
contingent of sports journalists, celebrity fight groupies like Norman Mailer
and George Plimpton, and of course the two principals: Ali, then still
controversial because of his decision to be a conscientious objector, and
Foreman, now huggable and lovable in TV commercials but then seen as fearsome
“I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm strong, and I can't be
beat,” Ali told the press. They didn't believe him. Foreman had destroyed
George Frazier, who had defeated Ali. Foreman was younger, bigger and stronger,
with a punch so powerful, Mailer recalled, “that after he was finished with a
heavy punching bag, it had a depression pounded into it.” Ali was 33 and
thought to be over the hill. The odds were 7-1 against him.
The Zaire that they arrived in was a country much in need of
foreign currency and image refurbishment. Under the leadership of Mobutu Sese
Seko (“the archetype of a closet sadist,” said Mailer), the former Belgian
Congo had became a paranoid police state; the new stadium built to showcase the
fight was rumored to hold 1,000 political prisoners in cells in its catacombs.
Don King, then at the dawn of his career as a fight promoter,
had sold Mobutu on the fight and raised $5 million for each fighter. The “African
Woodstock,” featuring such stars as B.B. King, James Brown and Miriam Makeba,
was supposed to pay for part of that. For Ali, the fight in Africa was payback
time for the hammering he'd taken in the American press for his refusal to
fight in Vietnam. For Foreman, it was more complicated. So great was the
pro-Ali frenzy, Foreman observed, that when he got off the plane the crowds
were surprised to find that he was also a black man. “Why do they hate me so
much?” he wondered.
Leon Gast's “When We Were Kings,” which just received an Oscar
nomination, is like a time capsule; the original footage has waited all these
years to be assembled into a film because of legal and financial difficulties.
It is a new documentary of a past event, recapturing the electricity generated
by Muhammad Ali in his prime. Spike Lee, who with Mailer and Plimpton provides
modern commentary on the 1974 footage, says young people today do not know how
famous and important Ali was. He is right. “When I fly on an airplane,” Ali
once told me, “I look out of the window and I think, I am the only person that
*everyone* down there knows about.” It is not bragging if you are only telling
The original film apparently started as a concert documentary.
Then the fight was delayed because of a cut to Foreman's eye. The concert went
ahead as scheduled, and then the fighters, their entourages and the press
settled down to wait for the main event. No one really thought Ali had a
chance--perhaps not even Ali, who seems reflective and withdrawn in a few
private moments, although in public he predicted victory.
How could he have a chance, really? Hadn't he lost his prime
years as a fighter after he refused to fight in Vietnam? (“I ain't got no
quarrel with the Viet Cong,” he explained.) Wasn't Foreman bigger, faster,
stronger, younger? History records Ali's famous strategy, the “Rope-a-Dope”
defense, in which he simply outwaited Foreman, absorbing incalculable
punishment until, in the eighth round, Foreman was exhausted and Ali exploded
with a series of rights to the head, finishing him.
Was this, however, really a strategy at all? “When We Were Kings”
gives the impression that Ali got nowhere in the first round and adopted the
Rope-a-Dope almost by default. Perhaps he knew, or hoped, that he was in better
condition than Foreman, and could outlast him if he simply stayed on his feet.
It is certain that hardly anyone in Zaire that night, not even his steadfast
supporter Cosell, thought that Ali could win; the upset became an enduring part
of his myth.
“When We Were Kings” captures Ali's public persona and private
resolve. As heavyweight champion during the Vietnam War, he could easily have
arrived at an accommodation with the military, touring bases in lieu of combat
Although he was called a coward and a draft dodger, surely it
took more courage to follow the path he chose. And yet it is remarkable how
ebullient, how joyful, he remained even after the price he paid; how he is
willing to be a clown and a poet as well as a fighter and an activist.
Seeing the film today inspires poignant feelings; we contrast
younger Ali with the ailing and aging legend, and reflect that this fight must
have contributed to the damage that slowed him down. It is also fascinating to
contrast the young Foreman with today's much-loved figure; he, too, has grown
and mellowed. When the movie was made all of those developments were still
ahead; there is a palpable tension, as the two men step into the ring, that is
not lessened because we know the outcome.