Commentary Magazine


Politics & Pugilists

It may have been the most poignant moment of this year’s Oscar ceremonies. As Leon Gast and David Sonenberg made their way to the stage to receive an Academy Award for their documentary, When We Were Kings, all eyes and cameras were on the film’s main figures, both of whom were also in attendance: the boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Ali, who now suffers from Parkinson’s syndrome, struggled to applaud but could barely manage a smile, while the once-fearsome George Foreman, Ali’s former nemesis who is today one of America’s most beloved sports figures, sat only an arm’s length away. Gast ended his acceptance speech with brief thanks to Foreman and dramatic praise for Ali, the latter almost drowned out by the cheers from the glitterati as they leapt to their feet in a standing ovation. Above the din could be heard Gast’s final words: “. . . and as President Clinton said, ‘it’s about time we as Americans start paying [Ali] back for everything he’s done!’ ”

Was there anyone in the Hollywood crowd who appreciated the unintended irony of this juxtaposition? For Gast was quoting a President who, like Muhammad Ali, had opposed the American intervention in Vietnam but who, though then only a student, had shrunk from acting for fear of jeopardizing his “political viability.” Ali, by contrast, who was already the heavyweight champion of the world, had readily sacrificed his title and risked his career, his good name, and even possibly his place in boxing history to protest the war.

But that is only one irony among the many that swirl around what is perhaps the most improbable, enjoyable, and deceptive documentary in years.

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The subtitle on the posters for When We Were Kings reads, “The Untold Story of the ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ ” And what a story it is. Fought more than two decades ago in Zaire, the “Rumble,” a heavyweight championship contest between Ali and Foreman, opened a new chapter in the history of boxing and sports in general.

This was, for one thing, the first truly global televised sports event, with the fight starting at 4:00 A.M. in Kinshasa so that American audiences could see it in prime time. The purse was likewise the largest ever up until that time—$10 million, split evenly between the two fighters—and it inaugurated the age of the super-rich athlete; Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Rocky Marciano had not grossed so much during their entire careers as champions. The “Rumble in the Jungle” also transformed Don King, a former Cleveland “numbers czar” and convicted killer, into the promoter who would one day gain a stranglehold on professional boxing. Finally, in defeating George Foreman, who had been overwhelmingly favored to win, Muhammad Ali would brilliantly regain his heavyweight title, becoming only the second boxer in history to have done so, rehabilitating himself after his long suspension from the sport over Vietnam, and restoring his image after more than a decade as a figure of political and cultural controversy.

That Gast was able to film the event at all was due largely to dumb luck. On the strength of a movie called Hell’s Angels Forever!, he had been hired to make a documentary not of the fight itself but of a three-day music festival in Kinshasa that was set to coincide with it—“a kind of African-American Woodstock,” in Gast’s own words. But events conspired against him. Funds for the movie were supposed to be drawn from the anticipated proceeds of the music festival itself, which was headlined by B.B. King, James Brown, and several African artists including Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. Unfortunately, Zaire’s ruler, the same Mobutu Sese Seko whose ruthless tenure has only now come to a close, invoked dictator’s privilege and declared the concert free of charge.

Then, just five days before the scheduled bout, Foreman received a nasty cut above his eye during a sparring session. Though not permanently debilitating, the wound was severe enough to delay the fight for six weeks; it would not be held until October 30, 1974. But Mobutu, having already invested $10 million in the “Rumble,” refused to permit the fighters, their entourages, or the various crews to leave the country (a fact the film gently glosses over).

Left with a camera crew and nothing further to shoot, Gast turned his lens on Ali. It is a good thing he did, for though the concert took place as scheduled, the footage from it that manages to make its way into When We Were Kings is dated and dull. Ali, on the other hand, is a wonder to behold, both physically—the contrast with his appearance on Oscar night is heart-wrenching—and mentally. As “the original rapper,” to use the sobriquet applied to him by the film’s publicists, he effortlessly extemporizes here on boxing and politics alike: “You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned/Just wait’ll I kick George Foreman’s behind.” Or, explaining his training regimen:

I done rassled with an alligator,
I tussled with a whale,
I done handcuffed lightning
    and throwed thunder in jail,
I murdered a rock, I injured a
    stone,
I hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean I make medicine
    sick.

Still, despite the treasure trove of material he had captured on film, it took twenty years before Gast secured the necessary funding, mostly from the music producer David Sonenberg, to turn his 450 hours of stock into a movie. He finally hired the director Taylor Hackford, who, compensating for the fact that lengthy footage of the fight itself was prohibitively expensive to procure, added interviews with talking heads: the writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, the director Spike Lee, the Zairian actor Malik Bowens, and Thomas Hauser, Ali’s biographer. Plimpton and Mailer had both been ringside in 1974, and have since written extensively about the event. In the film they do much to explain fight tactics and, along with Hauser, to flesh out the motivations of the principal figures.

When We Were Kings features an almost archetypical situation: Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, as the “aging” thirty-two-year-old desperate to regain his title; George Foreman, seven years younger and incredibly strong, as the mysterious “kid” challenger. Today, Foreman is a benign and seemingly ubiquitous figure on television, whether in potato-chip commercials or on late-night talk shows; he is known not only for having won the world championship of boxing in a comeback fight in 1994 at the age of forty-five but for being a proud father and a dedicated preacher of the Christian gospel. But in 1974, the man who was then the world’s strongest puncher was a dark and inscrutable figure, known mostly as being capable of extreme violence.

At the time, virtually every sportswriter considered Foreman a sure thing in Kinshasa. He had already demolished Ken Norton and Joe Frazier—two fighters who had also handed Ali his only defeats—and there were fears that Ali would be irreparably injured, disfigured, or killed in the encounter. On screen, in the original footage, the late sportscaster Howard Cosell is caught intoning, with his customary robotic gravity, “The time may have come to say good-bye to Muhammad Ali.”

But as Mailer and Plimpton explain, Ali, facing a ferocious combination of external odds and internal doubts, crafted a brilliant strategy. During the weeks leading up to the fight, Ali announced that he aimed to defeat his lumbering Goliath of an opponent by outdancing him in the ring; his mocking nickname for George Foreman was “the mummy.” Instead, and to the world’s shock, he stopped Foreman by another means altogether, employing what would become known as the rope-a-dope. In Plimpton’s words, Ali leaned back against the ring’s restraints “as if he were a man looking out his window to see if there was something on his roof.” For four straight rounds, he simply turned himself into a punching bag, absorbing an unrelenting bombardment from Foreman and counter-punching defensively from this restricted position. Only when Foreman had thoroughly worn himself out did the battered Ali explode. The knockout came in the eighth round.

As a chronicle of the pugilistic drama behind the “Rumble in the Jungle,” When We Were Kings soars—indeed, it is a powerful reminder of why boxing was ever called the “sweet science.” But it also aims to be more than a fight movie, offering itself as a document with much to say on matters historical and political. On those grounds, it not only fails, it does a great disservice: to history, to politics, and to its own protagonists.

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Hagiography is not too strong a term to apply to the treatment of Muhammad Ali in When We Were Kings. He is cast explicitly not just as the great fighter he was but as a prophet—specifically, a prophet of black liberation returning to Africa, the promised land. As a member of Ali’s entourage puts it, “The king is going home to get his throne. From the root of the fruit, [Africa is] where everything started at.” And Ali himself expatiates, from the cockpit of an African-piloted plane: “Africans are more intelligent than we are. They speak English, French, and African. We don’t even speak English.” From the perspective of the present, Spike Lee chimes in that before the fight in Zaire, “Africa” was a bad word to black Americans: “If you called a black man an African, they’d fight.” In returning “home,” Muhammad Ali changed all that.

But the main focus of the producers is not on the trumped-up image of Africa in the minds of black Americans. It is on the image, and the self-image, of Muhammad Ali. That image is nothing short of messianic. In the movie Ali calls himself a “tool of God,” sent to Africa to “free” his people. “I’m gonna fight for the prestige,” he says:

Not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare . . . black people who have no knowledge of themselves, black people who have no future.

In the film’s title song, rendered by a rap group called the Fugees, Ali is called the “black Abraham,” a “ghetto messiah,” and likened to an angel. A member of Ali’s entourage compares him favorably with Jesus Christ.

If Ali is depicted as a saint and a hero, George Foreman, his fellow black American, plays the devil—the “monster” Ali says he has returned to the land of his ancestors to destroy. Indeed, Ali is often filmed walking among the native Zairians and leading them in a chant, “Ali, bombaye!” (“kill him!”). It takes the Zairian actor Malik Bowens to explain approvingly how this weird trick of perception—Foreman is not only black, but blacker than Ali—was pulled off. The secret was anti-Americanism. Ali, it seems, was already immensely popular in Zaire because of his well-publicized stance against the American involvement in Vietnam, whereas “we thought [Foreman] was white. He represented America.” Besides, Bowens points out, Foreman arrived at the airport in Kinshasa accompanied by a German shepherd, a canine mascot closely associated in the minds of Zairians with the hated Belgian colonizers.

_____________

 

Of course it is standard fare for fighters and fight promoters to describe their contests as battles between good and evil (or, in this case, Good and Evil). What makes When We Were Kings different is the thoroughness with which Ali himself, strongly abetted here by the film’s producers, mixes the standard morality play with black nationalism. To be sure, not everybody involved in the movie is prepared to go to quite the same lengths as Ali in romanticizing Africa in general or Zaire in particular. Mobutu Sese Seko, a tyrant out of central casting, naturally comes off badly, with Norman Mailer comparing him to Stalin and Hitler and noting that the ground beneath the stadium where the “Rumble” was scheduled to take place was stained with the blood of his slaughtered victims. Still, neither the filmmakers nor their talking heads care to look at Mobutuism as a system.

Zairian officials intended the “Rumble in the Jungle” as a celebration of that system, which essentially amounted to Afrocentrism at gunpoint. Its cornerstone, according to David Lamb in The Africans (1985), was Zaire’s “authenticity” program, launched by Mobutu (in the dictator’s own words) “in order to rediscover our soul, which colonialization had almost erased from our memories and which we are seeking in the tradition of our ancestors.” All Western names and clothes were banned, Christmas was abolished, and paintings of Mobutu, the country’s messiah, were hung in every church, school, and square. The “Rumble in the Jungle” was itself planned by Mobutu and his henchmen as a public-relations event to showcase the achievements of Mobutuism—as Muhammad Ali, for one, well understood. He is quoted in the movie as having said that “countries go to war to get their names on a map and wars cost a lot more than $10 million.”

But, although one hardly learns this from When We Were Kings, the cause of international publicity in 1974 took a back seat to kleptocracy. As Stephen Weissman has noted in the Washington Post, Mobutu, who already had stashed away at least $3 billion, mostly in European banks, proceeded to funnel 42.5 percent of the worldwide proceeds of the fight into his private offshore accounts. Nor were other evidences lacking of Mobutuism in action: according to David Lamb, Zaire boasted 31,000 miles of main roads at the time of its independence in 1960; by 1980, thanks to Mobutuism, the number had fallen to 3,700. Though the Western press corps had a good six weeks to look around Zaire between George Foreman’s facial cut and the actual bout, somehow reality seems to have eluded it, as it still eludes the makers of When We Were Kings.

_____________

 

And Ali himself? Spike Lee laments on-screen that young people today are so utterly lacking in historical knowledge they barely know who he was. But the movie will not help them overcome that deficiency.

Personally, by all accounts, and out of the ring, the Muhammad Ali of the late 1960′s and early 1970′s could be a sweet and loyal man. But publicly he was a follower of the Nation of Islam, and a dedicated black segregationist—two facts that are barely noted in this documentary but that help provide an intelligible context for the figure we see before us.

In November 1965, not long after he joined the Black Muslims and changed his name from Cassius Clay, Ali fought Floyd Patterson, a former heavyweight champion. Patterson was an athlete of the Jackie Robinson variety. A devout Christian, he was also deeply and publicly committed to integration and no less outspoken about the danger posed by Ali’s new associations:

Cassius Clay is disgracing himself and the Negro race. No decent person can look up to a champion whose credo is “hate whites.” I have nothing but contempt for the Black Muslims and that for which they stand. The image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation. Cassius Clay must be beaten and the Black Muslims’ scourge removed from boxing.

The response from Ali took several forms. He excoriated Patterson for attacking his religion; called him an Uncle Tom and “the technicolor white hope”; and hurled at him one of his trademark poems:

I’m gonna put him flat on his
    back,
So that he will start acting black,
Because when he was champ he
    didn’t do as he should.
He tried to force himself into an
    all-white neighborhood.

But the real response came in the ring. In the first round of their fight, Ali merely toyed with his outclassed opponent; thereafter, he childishly added sound effects—“boop boop”—to each punch he threw and baited Patterson with screams of “white nigger.” As Thomas Hauser recounts the event in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, every time Patterson was about to drop, Ali would move away, allowing a moment’s reprieve to enable the farce to continue. Patterson’s humiliation continued into the twelfth round when Ali’s trainer finally begged, “Ali, knock him out, for chrissake.” Life magazine’s headline for its coverage of the fight was: “Sickening Spectacle in a Ring.”

Even more sickening was Ali’s performance against Ernie Terrel in February 1967, a fight that had been previously canceled in the uproar over Ali’s declaration that “I ain’t go no quarrel with the Vietcong.” In a bit of pre-fight drama, Terrel, a former sparring partner of Ali’s, refused to use his new name and referred to him as Cassius Clay. Enraged at this resort to his “slave name,” Ali promised to beat Terrel until he addressed him properly. In the ensuing fight, which Hauser calls “ugly and brutal,” and which Sports Illustrated dubbed “a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty,” Ali mauled Terrel beyond all necessity, stepping back after each blow and shouting, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom, what’s my name?” There were persistent rumors that Ali deliberately thumbed Terrel in the eyes, and even rubbed his eyes on the ropes.

In the New York Times, the sportswriter Arthur Daley said of Ali in those years that he was “a mean and malicious man whose façade continues to crumble as he gets deeper into the Black Muslim movement.” So notorious was his behavior that it drew comment from public figures. Illinois Congressman Robert Michel rose on the floor of the House: “While thousands of our finest young men are fighting and dying in the jungles of Vietnam, this healthy specimen is profiteering from a series of shabby bouts. Apparently Cassius will fight anyone but the Vietcong.”

_____________

 

Contrast all this to the behavior of George Foreman in the 60′s and early 70′s, behavior which goes similarly unmentioned in the film.

At the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, the black American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in an act that was widely credited to the example set by Muhammad Ali, shockingly offered the black-power salute at their victory ceremony. At those same Mexico City games, George Foreman won the Gold Medal for boxing. He rejoiced not by raising a gloved fist in defiance but by waving a small American flag as he virtually danced around the ring.

For this display of patriotism, Foreman won the contempt of black radicals and was made a virtual pariah in the American black community. “Imagine,” he would later write in his autobiography, By George, “the Olympic heavyweight champion, an outcast. . . . That’s when I began withdrawing.”

The truth is that Foreman had long learned to hide his character beneath a fierce appearance. Even so, however, a few hints of that character emerge in When We Were Kings. He is seen, for example, taking exception to Ali’s habit of inciting crowds of Zairians with the chant, “Ali, bombaye!” When one African approaches Foreman and shouts, helpfully, “Foreman, bombaye!,” the boxer replies, “I don’t like that,” and says he would rather hear “George Foreman loves being here!” than “Foreman, kill him!” Again, in a filmed bull session, Foreman appears wholly uninterested in the Afrocentric philosophizing of Don King and the singer James Brown.

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Of course, that a team of Hollywood producers should be sympathetic to the anti-American politics of a stellar black athlete is hardly surprising. That they should be reluctant to speak ill of the Nation of Islam is also to be expected. But what is outrageous is that nowhere in the course of the film itself or in its inordinately long epilogue—in which we learn from Norman Mailer that George Foreman has indeed “transformed” himself into the lovable teddy bear he is today, and that Muhammad Ali, despite his medical condition and his ruinous marriages, is a happy and fulfilled man—is there the slightest hint that Muhammad Ali himself no longer holds to the prescriptions he offers for the ills of American blacks in When We Were Kings, or that he has altogether repudiated the Nation of Islam and its racist theology.

Ali’s daughter, Khaliah Ali, has objected to the movie on precisely these grounds, writing (in an op-ed piece in USA Today) that her father’s “separatist views on race as expressed in 1974” in no way reflect his views today. Moreover, asserts his daughter, Ali’s evolution from being an adherent of Elijah Muhammad to being a follower of Martin Luther King, Jr.

is no small thing because the belief that white people are “devils” and the belief that all people should be judged “on the content of their character” cannot be reconciled. . . . Make no mistake: My father has abdicated his Black Muslim ministry and has recanted his belief in the doctrine of racial separation. . . . We and Muhammad Ali should be spared any misguided attempt to use his pervasive influence to promote the aims of those who champion the reign of racism in America and the world.

It appears, however, that none of us will be so spared. In interviews and promotional material, Leon Gast and David Sonenberg have enthusiastically championed the Muhammad Ali of 1974 as a guide for today’s youth, especially today’s black youth. And Prakazrel Michel, of the rap group the Fugees, adds:

You got to know where you’re coming from to know where you’re going. Muhammad Ali is where we came from, and a lot of kids are forgetting it, so we’re telling them that this is what was and this is where we’re going.

In the 23 years since the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Muhammad Ali has definitively shed “what was” and has dedicated himself to family, philanthropy, and racial healing. But to the makers of When We Were Kings, as to the Hollywood crowd gathered on Oscar night, this is evidently one irony too many to comprehend, let alone to portray honestly. But then, the subject of Hollywood’s wayward politics deserves a documentary all its own.

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