In 1996 I saw the film When We Were Kings at a small theater in Georgetown, Washington D.C. I never knew much about boxing beyond the standard headlines, but there was something heroic about the subject matter that attracted my attention.
I’m always on the lookout for such things, you see. I can just feel them.
A few years back, I bought up a number of old DVDs from a liquidation sale of a Blockbuster Video store in my city that was going out of business. When We Were Kings was one of the films. I see it every now and then, always inspired by its timeless message.
And what a great story this is. It’s too bad that a lot of younger guys I talk to have no idea about the life and career of Muhammad Ali. Hence this article. Who will protest against another telling of this incredible tale?
It plays like a combination of Greek drama and Gilbert & Sullivan opera.
To appreciate the magnitude of Ali’s victory over Foreman, we must first understand the background to the match and the personalities of the combatants.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight championship title was revoked, and he was suspended for 3.5 years for his refusal to enter the US Army. His stance as a conscientious objector was scorned by many at the time; and he paid a heavy price for his principles. He wandered in the wilderness for several years, unbroken but wounded.
Ali’s attempt at a comeback in 1971 against champion Joe Frazier ended in defeat; he went the distance against Frazier but the decision did not go his way.
To nearly everyone, it appeared that Ali was finished. His career, over.
In the meantime, Frazier himself was defeated by a fearsome and powerful man named George Foreman who seemed unstoppable.
But he was still Muhammad Ali, and there was just something irrepressible about the man. He refused to go into the night quietly. His charisma and charm are apparent in every film clip we see of him: this, we sense, is a great and pure soul.
And at this point a figure arrived on the scene right out of dramatic central casting: Don King. Driven, aggressive, convincing, and unscrupulous, he promised to put together a fight like no other.
So he approached Ali and had him sign a contract that, if he, King, could raise a purse of 5 million dollars, then Ali would participate in a fight against champion George Foreman. King approached Foreman, and had him sign a piece of paper saying the same thing. Foreman did.
And now the problem was getting the money. King was nearly unknown then; he needed to find someone with deep pockets who would be willing to sponsor the fight. King and his co-promoters got lucky, for the authoritarian president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, was willing to put up the money to promote his country. Everyone was happy, and thus the stage was set for one of the most memorable sporting events in history.
The drama began soon after both fighters arrived in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali quickly won over the Congolese people, with his affable charm and good-natured histrionics (he promoted the famous chant Ali buma-ye, or “Ali, kill him!” in the Lingala language).
Foreman, on the other hand, was a mountainous mystery. He quickly alienated public opinion against himself by carrying around his German shepherd dog, which (unknown to Foreman) for the Congolese was a symbol of police oppression under the Belgian colonial regime.
The fight had to be delayed for an extra six weeks once Foreman received a cut over his eye during a sparring match with his trainer. There was thus plenty of time for everyone involved to get themselves worked up into an emotional frenzy. To ensure that there would be no crime problems to embarrass the country, we are told that Mobutu rounded up the top criminals in Kinshasa and had them executed.
The general consensus, even in Ali’s camp, was that Ali was going to be destroyed. Foreman was a puncher of devastating power; the heavy bag he would pound ended up with hollows in it the size of a small melon. But Ali, unknown to everyone, really did have a plan. He was not all just talk and bluster; behind the public joking was a meticulous and methodical planner.
Adding to the bizarre atmosphere was a music festival that was used to promote the fight. Some of the most well-known American musical acts (including James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, and others) arrived in Zaire to participate. It is difficult to imagine something like this happening today.
The fight itself was a thing of beauty. There is no other phrase that can be used to describe it. In the film When We Were Kings, the interviews with George Plimpton and Norman Mailer give insight into what happened.
In Ali’s locker room right before the fight, the atmosphere resembled that of a funeral. For all of Ali’s encouraging talk, there was a feeling that he was going to be pummeled badly. There was a feeling that his pride would not be able to take it. Even his own people doubted him.
And Ali sensed it. He reassured them, “I’m going to dance, to dance, to dance,” he chanted them over and over.
He had told everyone he was going to “dance.” That is, he was going to use his famous footwork to run Foreman around the ring and exhaust him. Foreman had concentrated his training on “cutting off” an adversary, as a way of neutralizing Ali’s anticipated footwork.
But Ali did not dance. He did the unexpected. He came out storming at Foreman in the first round, hitting him with a succession of what Mailer called “right-handed leads,” a dangerous type of punch that most advanced fighters don’t bother learning how to deal with.
Foreman wasn’t prepared for this. And he went crazy with rage. All the previous weeks of listening to Ali’s public taunts and jibes now bubbled to the surface. He wanted to hurt Ali, and hurt him badly.
And this was just the reaction that Ali was hoping for. Instead of “dancing,” he went to the ropes, leaned back, and let Foreman hammer away at him with brutal body blows. At first no one knew what was going on. Plimpton, in an interview aside, thought that there might be a fix.
But there was nothing wrong. Ali leaned far back on the ropes for round after round, and took the abuse. All the time, he taunted Foreman:
George, is that all you got?
That all you got, George? You disappoint me!
Can’t you hit no harder than that, George?
Foreman became enraged further. Ali’s plan was to let Foreman whale away at him, to let him exhaust himself, and then counter-attack. Which is exactly what he did.
The conclusion of the fight was transcendent. It was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, comebacks in sports history. He truly was the greatest. A great boxer, and a great man.
But there is another tale of greatness and redemption here as well. We often overlook it. But it is there nonetheless.
And it is the story of George Foreman, and his long road to redemption.
Everyone now is used to seeing George Foreman as the smiley, ebullient, happy salesman of grills. A nicer man could hardly be imagined. But this was not the George Foreman of the early 1970s. People forget that Foreman in those days was an intimidating, taciturn figure.
After he lost the fight, he was plunged into a two-year period of depression which he almost did not escape. He was tormented by anger and repressed resentment. But he was able to redeem himself, and this story deserves its own movie. He found a new purpose and basis for his life.
He was able to let go of the emotional baggage. He remade himself and his personality, and transformed himself into a positive, inspiring figure. Perhaps the defeat against Ali was the best thing that could have happened to him. He and Ali are now so close as to be brothers.
The spectacle of Foreman helping Ali to the stage in 1996 to receive the award for the film When We Were Kings was moving beyond words. They are both great men, each in his own way. It is a dramatic story, dramatically told.
The Foreman-Ali match is high drama, and a great human story on many different levels.
When we cease to care about tales like this, we shall cease to be worthy of being called men.
Read More: A Tale Of Grapes And Greed