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When We Were Kings: Ready to Fight

<em>When We Were Kings:</em> Ready to Fight

Muhammad Ali was thirty-two years old when he arrived in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974 to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. Thirty-two is not prohibitively old for a boxer in the heavyweight division. (As I type, the most celebrated heavyweight boxer in America is Deontay Wilder, who is thirty-three and generally considered to be in his prime.) But Ali was an old thirty-two, having survived forty-six fights and won forty-four of them, not always easily. And his opponent was George Foreman, the champion, who was then considered the most fearsome man on the planet—much more fearsome, certainly, than Ali. George Plimpton was one of a number of writers who were in Zaire, entranced by the fight and the circus that surrounded it. Plimpton wrote in Sports Illustrated about the prefight prayer in Foreman’s corner, led by Archie Moore, who was one of Foreman’s trainers and who had also been, years earlier, one of the greatest and most destructive boxers of all time. “I was praying, and in great sincerity, that George wouldn’t kill Ali,” Moore told Plimpton. “I really felt that was a possibility. George truly doesn’t know his own strength.”

Like many boxing matches, Ali versus Foreman—the so-called Rumble in the Jungle—seemed likely to be a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both. It was hard to tell in advance, and it can be hard to tell, too, in retrospect. Leon Gast, who had made a concert documentary called Our Latin Thing in 1972, had been hired to direct a film about Zaïre 74, the music festival that was supposed to accompany the fight. Then Foreman suffered a cut above his right eye in training camp and the festival was staged without the match, which was rescheduled for six weeks later, and which finally took place at four in the morning, for the convenience of Americans watching via satellite. Neither the concert nor the fight generated anything like the ticket revenue that organizers had hoped for, and soon Gast’s project was facing other obstacles to its completion—including the death in an airplane crash of Stephen A. Tolbert, the finance minister of Liberia, who had been one of its original investors. It wasn’t until the eighties that Gast was able, with help from lawyer David Sonenberg (who would become a producer on the film), to transfer his footage to videotape and begin assembling it into a documentary.

“Part of what people love about When We Were Kings is its evocation of the sense of mischief that Ali generated.”

“Like many of Ali’s victories, this one was memorable not because Ali dominated but because he didn’t.”

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