“This is the legend of Muhammed Ali,
The most popular fighter that ever will be.
He talks a great deal and brags, indeed,
About a powerful punch and blinding speed.
The fistic world is dull and weary.
With a champ like Foreman, things have got to be dreary.
Now someone with color, someone with dash,
He brings fight fans a-running with cash.
This brash boxer is something to see.
The heavyweight championship is his destiny.
Ali fights great—he’s got speed and endurance…
If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance”
In 1974, a fast-talking ex-con named Don King convinced then-former champ Muhammed Ali and reigning heavyweight champion George Foreman to fight for the title and $5 million each. Although he didn’t have a cent, the wily promoter quickly raised the cash by soliciting Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Not only did Mbutu put up the $10 million for the fight, he also pillaged his country’s coffers to build airports, stadiums, and training facilities in a massive public relations whitewashing.
Amid the political scandals involving Mobutu, the former political scandals involving Ali, the three-day celebration of African and African-American music (James Brown, BB King, the Spinners, Miriam Mekeba and the Crusaders), the sports coverage resembling a three-ring circus (Ali the ringmaster) and delays due to injuries, there was actually a fight. It was called the Rumble in the Jungle.
And whatta fight.
You had the brooding 25-year-old Foreman with a devastating punch; a past-his-prime Ali whose sparring bouts had been lackluster at best; Foreman, the three-to-one favorite; Ali’s camp fearing for his life; Ali absorbing punishing-blow-upon-punishing-blow; Ali’s Rope-A-Dope strategy; Foreman finally wearing out; An eighth-round KO delivered by the man who described himself as “so mean, I make medicine sick.”
A young filmmaker, Leon Gast, was given complete access to the training facilities, the concert and the fight. All in all, he shot over 300,000 feet of film. Unfortunately, as soon as the event was over, the money supposedly earmarked for the film’s completion mysteriously disappeared. Gast struggled for two decades to secure the rights to his film, jumping legal hurdles and raising the capital himself. 22 years after the Rumble, Gast was finally able to deliver a time capsule that captured the historical impact of the event and the timelessness of its meaning. “When We Were Kings.”
Brilliantly editing press conferences, sparring bouts, concert footage, and clips from the fight with commentary from Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee and others (shot later by Taylor Hackford), “When We Were Kings” tells the story of the fight itself, to be sure. But it also conveys Ali’s still-relevant message of self-reliance, pride, and personal responsibility. While there was only one champion who left the ring that day, George Foreman also represented those ideals to Black America. On October 30, 1974, Ali and Foreman were kings.