First, the bullet points:
- The Rumble in The Jungle took place in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, the day before Halloween, 1974.
- I’ve been watching documentaries about Muhammad Ali the last few months. The man fascinates me. He is the bravest man in sports in the last century, if not longer.
- I first became interested in Ali at my friend’s older brother’s wedding. In a hotel room, my friend’s younger brother and I watched an HBO documentary about the “Thrilla in Manila”. What I remember most from the documentary is that Ali’s wife Portia flew to Manila in order to catch her good Muslim husband with other women.
- I’ve also been watching documentaries about the central African nations, many of them like Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Mali, Cameroon (the French Cameroon anyway), etc. were French colonies and so the people speak French alongside their native languages. I am reading the Forest People by Colin Turnbull, an anthropological study of the people of the Congolese forest. I’ve gone a bit Africa-nuts.
- In this corner, the reigning champion George Foreman. This was long before we knew him for his cheap kitchen top grills. In ’74 he was known mostly for being beefy with a strong right hook. That’s boxing for: he could punch really hard with his right hand because he put all his beefy weight into the punch.
- In the other corner, “the Greatest”, Muhammad Ali. Ali had been suspended from boxing and stripped of the Heavyweight Boxing Title in ’67 for refusing to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.
Now, on with the show:
Already, the crowd has reached a Dengue Fever pitch. There are shouts of “Ali! Bomaye!”, which roughly translates to “Ali! Kill him!”. Ali enters the ring. On the faces of the crowd, in their ‘70s polyester shirts, you can see the intensity of the African heat tonight. Ali begins his act.
Because the Rumble is an HBO broadcast, much of the fight takes place through the mouths—and perhaps in the minds—of the commentators. Bob Sheridan, the veteran sportscaster, leads the charge, and showers Ali with praise, the man he calls “the Greatest”, without stumbling over his own professional ethos to be impartial. Beside him is NFL superstar Jim Brown. David Frost, known mostly as a journalist and, to my generation, for the movie Frost/Nixon based on his real interviews with the former president after his resignation, is the surprise ringside commentator. He provides the show with British wit in some of the dryer seasons of the fight. At times, you’re not sure if it’s David Frost or Eric Idle playing a joke for his next mockumentary.
The three comentators talk, postulating, while the audience wait for Foreman to arrive. The former champ Ali wanted the ring to be 20 feet wide so that he could dance around the ring, the reigning champ wanted it to be 18 feet wide so there would be no dancing. They comprised on the original width of 19 feet. The African night burns hotter while Ali waits for Foreman in the ring. Both men are performing psychological warfare on the other. Ali wants the crowd on his side. Foreman wants to psych out Ali by making him wait in the ring. Or could it be, as David Frost notes, that Foreman has decided not to show up at all?
But he does show. Slowly, deliberately and out of tune, the band plays the Star-Spangled Banner. Ali, ever-present of the crowd, lips the words to Zaire’s anthem, though there is no way for him to know the words. The ring is full and chaotic, the lights positioned as if on a movie set. It is the grand chaos of live television in what might be considered its infancy by today’s standards.
Both characters play their role masterfully. Foreman is determined, bullish in his red shorts—though he betrays his role for a good-natured smile toward the camera. And Ali in his man-of-faith white trunks talks. And talks. His head moves and shakes like a deranged tiger. You recognize it’s a front meant to prop up his own morale as much as it is meant to intimidate Foreman. Ali says a prayer in his corner, looking silly with his gloves turned toward the sky.
The first bell sounds and Ali’s tactic is immediately apparent. He comes out quick: swinging, moving, circling. He’ll use his energy and quickness while he has it. Before you realize it, the feet have stopped moving and the round is over. Ali is a confident man; this is the story of Ali. He gives a wink to the crowd, betraying nothing until his handlers surround him so he can get a breath of air. The chants begin again for the man of the cult.
The slow grind begins. Again we enter the minds of the commentators, not shy about their bias for the Greatest. Joe Frazier, a guest commentator between rounds, tries to keep them in check. The tragic former heavyweight champion can’t help but let his tongue slip and slash Muhammad’s strategy to stay on the ropes. Ali is taking too much punishment to the body, even though he’s getting blows to the face of Foreman. Every time he lands, the bull Foreman gets angrier and wilder, throwing punches only into the vicinity of Ali. He’s like a bomber pilot without radar, hoping to pummel at least the neighborhood.
But every time Ali gets in a good punch, or even close to one, the cheers from the crowd start and camera bulbs flash. “Ali! Bomaye!” they say again, and Bob Sheridan assures us it’s only in the sporting sense. Now you’re not so sure. Ali taunts the man, whispering in his ear through his mouthpiece. Men jump and swarm in the background, the Zaire forest not far behind. Their puddles of sweat ooze on the ground and contain them in a human pool.
Continues on Friday…