When We Were Kings, 1996.
Directed by Leon Gast.
Documentary on one of the most famous boxing fights of all time. Muhammad Ali vs. George Forman. The Rumble in the Jungle.
His dressing room was like a morgue. They all thought Muhammad Ali was going out to be slaughtered. Ali was experienced, and still fast, but George Foreman was young and powerful. Earlier on in the film they showed Foreman practicing on the biggest punch bag in the gym. Every day, for 15 minutes, he would relentlessly pummel his fists into its leather, each punch heavy and precise. Foreman would leave in it a dent the “size of half a watermelon”. They say Ali ignored it as he walked past. Nobody thought he could defeat Foreman. If he saw those fist shaped holes, Ali might have thought the same.
When We Were Kings is a documentary on their, and boxing’s, most famous fight – the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ October 30th, 1974. It was staged in Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Don King had promised both Ali and Foreman $5million each to fight. This was to be the making of Don King, as he masterminded the entire operation. But he didn’t have $10million. The then dictator of Zaire, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, an evil, sadist of a man, was the only person who would provide such loot. He did it to promote himself and Zaire, but this was money their economy could scarcely spare. King was amoral about such things. Ali seemed to delude himself into thinking it a good thing; that he’s fighting in Africa for his people. “Countries make war to get their names on the map, and war costs a lot more than $10million,” seemed to be his excuse for promoting a violent regime.
However, the statement Ali made with this fight – in Africa, for black independence – overwhelms such criticism. The documentary expertly intercuts footage of Ku Klux Klan members walking the streets with Ali refusing to be conscripted to fight in America’s war with Vietnam (“No Vietcong has ever called me a nigger.”) He was a voice to which many of the oppressed must have clung.
He’s an incredibly intelligent man. A couple of the interviewees said he’d make a great politician. His streams of consciousness spark from his mouth like firecrackers. The documentary often cuts together separate interviews to form an imaginary dialogue with such monologues. One is against a sports journalist who states that Ali cannot defeat Foreman. Ali responds: “He keeps on saying I’m not the man I was 10 years ago. Well I asked his wife, and she said he’s not the man he was two years ago.” He was the best wrestling promo guy before professional wrestling even took off.
Ali may have been a great talker, but Foreman was a boxing Buddha. There’s one segment where Foreman is told at a press conference that Ali is going to use some of his $5million prize money to build a hospital in Africa. Foreman, in menacing deadpan replied, “he’s going to need it.” All throughout he remains calm, impenetrable, a different man to the Foreman persona today.
But it’s the moments where Ali talks directly to the camera, slightly crazed but always utterly convincing, that are the heart of When We Were Kings. The interviews with Ali are so intimate. The camera is scrutinises every muscle on his face with its focus. One shoots him at a low angle from the side as Ali shouts how unafraid he is of Foreman – but the camera is wound on him so tight that Ali’s resolve seems to shudder. There’s a doubt on the half-edge of his smile. He doesn’t seem entirely convinced.
And that’s why his dressing room was like a morgue on October 30th, 1974. But he went out, driven by an unshakable pride. The first round was even. Foreman had been practicing cutting off the ring to stop Ali from dancing. From the second to the eighth round, all Ali could do was lean against the ropes with his guard up, where Foreman would pummel him with his hard punches just like the gym bag Ali ignored. But by the eighth round, Foreman was exhausted. Such relentless punching had tired him out. And there was the opening. Ali burst out from the ropes with a fierce combination. Foreman took them on the chin and pirouetted to the floor.
“There was a design in the madness.”
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