Still the Greatest

When We Were Kings

Muhammad Ali in Zaire

In my lifetime, only one public figure has claimed to be "the greatest" and not been a liar. That person is Muhammad Ali.

Why has Muhammad Ali meant so much to me, a white Jewish girl from New Jersey who has no feel for sports -- no less the raw combat of professional boxing? How could the sight of Ali in his glory days convince this young girl of the artistry of the sport and so deeply demonstrate how a masterful combination of speed, strength, confidence, and cunning could vanquish all opponents? And how did it come to be that Ali first entered my radar not as a boxer but as a political upstart -- a proud black man who renounced his slave name and proclaimed his faith in a dogmatically non-white religion, a draft resister who put his career on the line for his principles, a charismatic and personable public figure whose voice and deeds are so much a part of his times? In my usual backward manner, I had to first discover the greatness of the man's deeds in the arena of social discourse before I could marvel at his brilliance in any athletic arena. Though my route may have been circuitous, once convinced, there has been no turning back.

Was this recognition what drew the audience in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at this week's Academy Awards ceremony to such a thunderously emotional standing ovation when Ali took the stage with George Foreman and When We Were Kings director Leon Gast and executive producer Barry Sonenberg? The movie, a document of the Ali-Foreman title bout in Zaire in 1974, won the Oscar for best documentary feature of the year. A couple of days earlier, When We Were Kings was also recognized with the Truer Than Fiction award and a standing ovation for Ali at the Independent Spirit Awards. The movie is quite wonderful and deserving of honor, but I guarantee you that it is not what thrust the audience to their feet. Still showing on only a few screens (and opening in Austin this Friday, March 28, at the Dobie Theatre), it's safe to say that not too many audience members had first-hand knowledge of the film. What inspired the outpouring was the presence of Muhammad Ali and the awareness that they were in the company of greatness.

As a sports legend, the three-time heavyweight boxing champion has the crowns to back up his claims to greatness. In his prime, Ali commanded the ring with an unmatched combination of speed, power, grace, and intelligence. He was boastful and loquacious and worked the media as no sports figure ever had before. His baby-faced handsomeness and fast wit certainly helped make him one of the first superstars of the electronic age.

Yet there was a large part of America who saw the brash young boxer's poems and pronouncements as clownish self-promotion and nothing more. Ali stunned the world in 1964 when, the day after he defeated Sonny Liston to win his first heavyweight title, he announced his religious conversion to the Nation of Islam. Renouncing the name of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., the champion declared, to the chagrin of many, that he would thereafter be called Muhammad Ali.

By 1966, the draft board had curiously reclassified him as 1-A and in 1967, Ali officially refused induction into the army, claiming conscientious objector status as a minister in the religion of Islam. Indicted and convicted of draft evasion, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. As a convicted felon, he was barred from boxing and stripped of his title; his career was effectively over. However, the charismatic 25-year-old developed a new lucrative career as a speaker on the college lecture circuit. Later on, in 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction on a technicality. Ali fought furiously to regain his title and the years he lost and waged an uneven series of bouts until he was positioned to win back the heavyweight title in 1974 from the reigning champ George Foreman. He would successfully defend the title 10 more times before losing it to Leon Spinks in 1978. Seven months later Ali would once again win back the crown from Spinks but his championship years were now over. He retired from boxing in 1981.

Yet it takes more than athletic prowess to make Ali "the greatest." Over the years, he has grown into a true American hero. He has demonstrated that he is a human being infused with integrity and principles, and that he has always been willing to act on those convictions and accept the consequences. He promoted an understanding of the Vietnam war as a battle between dominant powers played out on a third world turf where boys from the American ghettos were used as expendable front-line fodder. He became an articulate spokesman for independent black identity and self-sufficiency. In his post-boxing years, Ali has devoted himself to humanitarian and philanthropic endeavors and one suspects that his public life would be even more extensive (and perhaps political) if his motor skills were not diminished by the Parkinson's syndrome that is the presumable result of too many blows to the head. Even so, Ali turns up from time to time on the grand world stage: as an emissary to Saddam Hussein of Iraq in 1990 to negotiate the release of 15 hostages, as the literal and iconic torchbearer for last summer's Olympic games in Atlanta, and as an honored guest at this week's internationally televised Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Director Leon Gast

When We Were Kings is a fascinating study of the fight that was nicknamed "The Rumble in the Jungle." Included are never-before-seen images from the "fight of the century" between the formidable and widely presumed to be undefeatable George Foreman and the foolhardy 32-year-old challenger Muhammad Ali. However, When We Were Kings becomes more than a record of a singular boxing event; it also chronicles a pivotal moment in the evolution of black cultural identity.

How director Leon Gast ended up with such amazing footage and why it took him 22 years to fashion it into an 85-minute-long film is quite a story in itself. I spoke by phone last week with Gast, who was anxiously awaiting the Academy Awards ceremony only a few short days away. There were constant interruptions the whole time we spoke -- calls from other interviewers, film executives, long-lost friends from childhood, and so on. He was ecstatic about having just received word that both Foreman and Ali would attend the ceremony. Gast exuded the charming excitement of someone thoroughly unaccustomed to such heady attention, of a New York documentary filmmaker who never in his wildest dreams expected to "go Hollywood." A Swiss TV crew was waiting to tape Gast the second he hung up with me.

Gast explained the background of the film and his participation. Originally, he was hired to shoot a concert film in Zaire. Preceding the fight was to be a three-day-long music festival that presented the top black performing artists from the United States and Africa. Headlining were musicians such as Miriam Makeba, James Brown, B.B. King, and the Spinners. The plan was for the filmmakers to come and record the music festival and package it as a concert film. Gast got the job on the basis of some earlier documentaries he had made: Hell's Angels Forever about the notorious bikers and The Dead, a profile of the Grateful Dead. However, fight promoter Don King did stipulate that a minimum of half the crew members hired by the white director be black. Gast describes the genesis of the film as follows: "Stuart Levine was a music producer and it was his brainchild to do what he was calling a "black Woodstock" and try and get the leading R&B and black performers of the early Seventies and to get the leading African performers and bring them all to Zaire and to stage this music festival and do a film about the music, and the roots of the music, and some African culture, and then to include some wraparound stuff of the fight and the fighters. It was going to be just a little profile of Ali and a profile of Foreman, and a little bit of fight stuff. And had the film been finished on schedule -- 1976 was the target date to release it -- we would have had a very different film than the film you see today."

Between the boxers' and musicians' entourages, a vast number of black American visitors descended on Zaire and the movie records their collectively exhilarated consciousness about gathering on the African continent. The event also spotlights early milestones in the careers of two legendary autocrats, Don King and Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko, each of whose rule continues unabated into the present (although Mobutu's dominion is growing ever shakier by the minute). King masterminded the whole event, which catapulted him from obscurity into the top ranks of fight promoters. Putting up the unprecedented $10 million purse was Zaire's President Mobutu, the country's dapper despot, who seized this unusual opportunity to attract hordes of Western visitors to his emerging country.

Then, five days before the fight was scheduled to take place, the entire scenario changed. While sparring, George Foreman received a bad cut over his right eye that was bad enough to cause the fight to be delayed for nearly six weeks. Though the performers all arrived, their intended audience of international journalists, jet-setters, and high rollers, for the most part, managed to readjust their itineraries. On the first day of the festival, the stands were practically empty. Mobutu felt this was not the image he wanted to project of his new Zaire, so he convinced the promoters to suspend ticket sales and open the gates to free admission. The show went on for a crowd of happy Zairians but the money for the film's post-production, which was to come from the gate receipts, would now never materialize.

Mobutu also made it known that he expected the fighters and their entourages to remain in Zaire until the rescheduled fight date as human collateral protecting his multi-million-dollar investment. At the outset, nobody could tell how long it would take for Foreman's gash to heal or how long they would all be stuck there. The film crew decided to stick around and see what else they could get. It was during this time that they recorded the footage that turned their concert film into an entirely different artifact.

Muhammad Ali trains for "The Rumble in the Jungle"

The fight that was originally scheduled to take place on September 25, 1974 was delayed until October 30. Ali and Foreman each responded quite differently to their stay in Zaire. Foreman holed up in his downtown hotel while Ali and his people took over a compound of villas about 40 miles out of Kinshasha. Foreman, who at this stage of his life was a fearsome character and nothing like the affable pitchman he later re-made himself into, stayed to himself and rarely gave audiences to the press or mingled with the African people, with whom he seemed uncomfortable. Ali was just the opposite, courting the press as always and wandering into the countryside, meeting the people, and stirring a two-way adoration. "The only time we'd see Foreman," says Gast, "was a press conference kind of situation where they'd say `George is going to be at such-and-such a place and if you get there at four o'clock you get to ask your question.' And Ali was the opposite. Ali just opened up his villa, his life, he was just as accessible as you could hope anybody would be. He was just anxious to talk. We were able to spend hours with him. I mean, hour upon hour."

Gast returned to the States with "approximately 300,000 feet of film or roughly 170 hours." None of that was footage of the actual fight either, since that was contracted out to a different, closed-circuit satellite crew. Years were spent haggling with dummy corporations to retain control of the footage Gast shot and largely financed, and, of course, the post-production money that was supposed to come from the festival gate proceeds was a moot issue. Little by little, working either at night or in between other jobs, Gast began the task of shaping the material. "It was over the years that the legend of Ali started to grow and the focus of the film started to change," explains Gast. "And as I put different cuts together, I would show it to friends of mine in New York City and I got a lot of encouragement from those people and they would just tell me `More Ali. More Ali,' and I kept on adding more Ali and I'd show them raw footage... I have hours, just hours and hours of Ali just sitting and rapping. And they'd all say, `You have incredible stuff' and encouraged me to keep on going on with it."

By 1986, Gast's lawyer Barry Sonenberg became more involved in the project and invested $400,000 of his own money as completion funds. Sonenberg had, by this time, become a successful manager of rock and rap artists and had given up his law practice. It was Sonenberg who helped Gast satisfy numerous music copyright questions and came up with the title When We Were Kings as a nostalgic reference to the event's eclectic gathering of royalty -- from the blues master B.B. King to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, and from the heavyweight champs, Ali and Foreman, to such self-invented rulers as President Mobutu and Don King.

Still, they felt the film still needed something, an element that was not to be supplied until 1995 by the director Taylor Hackford (The Idolmaker, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll). Hackford believed the film would benefit from the insertion of contemporary interviews with speakers who could provide knowledgeable commentary about the Ali-Foreman fight as well as defining the significance of Ali's cultural and historical legacy. "I got a phone call from Taylor Hackford," relates Gast, "and Taylor said he had seen the film and was very much interested in getting involved. A meeting was set up at which Taylor said that he thought that the film needed to be `brought into the Nineties.' Those were his exact words. And he said the way to do it was to do some interviews. And I was immediately horrified by that because David had suggested that five years earlier and I didn't want to do it." But Gast eventually warmed to the idea and interviews were conducted with filmmaker Spike Lee, writers and fight witnesses Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser and then judiciously inserted throughout the edited film. The final touch in "bringing the film into the Nineties" was the addition of a couple pieces of contemporary music solicited from artists handled by Barry Sonenberg.

Spike Lee may come the closest to defining the Ali appeal when he describes "this beautiful specimen. He was handsome, he was articulate, he was funny, charismatic, and he was whupping ass too." Lee goes on to point out the remarkable way in which Ali fused politics and sports. "Very few black athletes have ever talked the way Muhammad Ali talked without fear of something happening to them in their careers." Insightful commentary such as this blends with Gast's absorbing mix of concert footage, choice Ali moments, and archival footage. Thrilled to be flying in an airplane piloted by black Africans, Ali holds forth on what makes that such a mind-blowing event for a black American raised on Tarzan images of Africa. Gast's camera catches the candid and extemporaneous: Ali's initial disappointment upon learning the fight's been postponed or his leading the Zairians in the popular chant "Ali, Bomaye" ["Ali, kill him"].

Between George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, and Tom Hauser, the salient points of the match are analyzed (this is the fight that spawned the Rope-a-Dope strategy), but what they contribute is so much richer than mere fight commentary. Plimpton describes the Conradesque quality of Zaire, which he still longs to think of as the Congo, and the monsoons that flooded the stadium just as the fight ended. Hauser conveys some of Foreman's inadvertent missteps, as when he debarked from his plane with his German Shepard -- the same breed the police of the Belgian Congo used to keep the natives in line. Mailer hits the mark when he describes the image of Mobutu as that of a "closet sadist" and relates that the bowels of the stadium where the event took place were detention pens capable of locking up a couple thousand dissidents at a time.

When We Were Kings is also a fascinating commentary on the passage of time. The precariousness of Mobutu's current situation in Zaire only draws the thread tighter. We see Howard Cosell before the fight solemnly intoning his widely shared fear that the match-up would cause Ali severe bodily harm. Of course, in time, we have come to see that the harm experienced by Ali would, instead, be a cruelly cumulative deterioration that has affected every aspect of his post-boxing life. Foreman, too, has undergone a complete metamorphosis, a makeover so complete that we can barely see how the two Foremans were ever related. Don King, for better or worse, is still Don King, but this glimpse of the glad-handing, Shakespeare-quoting dealmaker during his first brush with glory becomes an encapsulated study of the man.

So many compelling snatches of cultural history converge in When We Were Kings, that it becomes easy to lose sight of the fact that, at its most basic, it boils down to a drama of two men alone in a ring. And, as he had done so many times before and since, Muhammad Ali ruled.

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When We Were Kings, Muhammad Ali, Leon Gast

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