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Flashback: on 1996’s When We Were Kings

It’s become almost impossible for me to defend the sport of boxing. There’s poor judging, corruption and unquestionable long-term injury to most fighters’ brains. But I still maintain a great love for the sport and its brave and fascinating participants. And although I am only one of legion, my boyhood idol and hero was “The Greatest”, Muhammad Ali. And, among other things, I’ve got an authentic, autographed boxing glove to prove it. Muhammad Ali has been mentioned more than a few times on this blog, and there’s very good reason for that. Quite frankly, his reach extended well beyond sports, and into countless avenues of American history and culture. There have literally been hundreds of books, of which I have managed to read many. Ali has been utilized over the years as a political envoy by both Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Also, for a solid period of time, he was considered the most recognizable man in the world. In the last few months alone, I’ve reviewed a HBO television film centered on Ali, an off-Broadway play focusing on his most controversial fight, and in March I hope to cover the most recent theatrical documentary about the champ. But today’s date, February 25th, 2014, is an extremely important one in the Ali legacy, and that’s why I’m paying tribute here today. We have now reached the 50th anniversary of Muhammad Ali upsetting the fearsome Sonny Liston, for his very first professional world boxing title. And since it falls within “Black History Month”, the timing couldn’t be better. 

Now, before I proceed with this appreciation of the winner of the 1996 Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, and its amazing subject and star, let me be clear that “When We Were Kings” does not document the events surrounding Ali winning his first Heavyweight Championship in February 1964, against a thought-indestructible “brute” of a man. No, this fascinating feature focuses on the garnering of Muhammad’s second world title in October of 1974, years after his first championship was unjustly stripped from him upon his refusal to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. And wouldn’t you know it, again for this time as a heavyweight challenger, Ali was facing what was thought to be an indestructible brute of a man. But this “monster” wasn’t Charles “Sonny” Liston, but the 1968 Olympic Gold Medalist and then current professional  Heavyweight Champion, George Foreman. By 1974, no one argued that Joe Frazier and Ken Norton were Ali’s two toughest ring opponents. Muhammad had lost decisions to both when he first laced up gloves with each, but managed to win close contests over Ken and Joe in their respective rematches. So, how could Ali possibly have a prayer against the young George Foreman, when considering that in the months leading up to their historic match-up, Big George had easily dispatched both Frazier and Norton—in less than two full rounds of action each. Frazier alone had tasted the canvas a total of six times! It’s been reported that even Ali’s sizable entourage doubted their man could do it. They feared for Muhammad’s life, and it’s been said that the Ali dressing room before the bout was as quiet as a morgue. Ali appeared to have lost about a half-step, and not many believed, that at the age of 32, Muhammad could conquer the younger and stronger warrior. How wrong that belief turned out to be.

Not only did Muhammad Ali manage to knock out Foreman(the only man ever to do so in George’s lengthy 81-fight career), but he did it as the centerpiece of one of the most impressively planned African and American events in history. Author Norman Mailer, who appears frequently as a commentator in “When We Were Kings”, wrote an entire book on Ali-Foreman called “The Fight”. It was also labeled the “Rumble in the Jungle”, as it took place in dictator President Mobutu’s 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire(now the Democratic Republic of Congo). That’s right, Ali and Foreman would meet as gladiators in an African nation, at an outdoor venue(during the rainy season)at 4 in the morning(to accommodate American closed-circuit television). And if not for an eyelid cut that Foreman suffered in training(it postponed the fight for five weeks), the championship duel would have been the amazing centerpiece of an event that would include a massive concert full of A-list black performers(like James Brown and B.B. King). The concert went on as planned, weeks before the eventual Ali-Foreman battle took place(in fact, the concert has its own documentary feature, 2008’s smashing “Soul Power”—and, of course, Ali can be spotted in that one too!), but the “Rumble in the Jungle” has maintained its iconic place in world and fistic history without the intended musical accompaniment. This championship match has become the stuff of legend, and Leon Gast’s amazing film covers its happening expertly—and at barely 90 minutes long. It’s a near-masterpiece of a movie about an unforgettable sporting event.

Would Mr. Gast have secured an Oscar, if not for the overwhelming charisma of the former Cassius Marcellus Clay(Ali’s birth name, before he converted to Islam, and until the time he won the Heavyweight Championship 50 years ago today)? Doubtful. Ali’s presence and aura was inescapable and infectious. He won over the African nation leading up to the bout, and he’s captivated millions of hearts and heads in the decades since. Anything negative to say about “When We Were Kings”? Not much. However for one, I don’t know what Gast’s shackles were, but it would’ve been nice to hear from some more African-American voices that attended the legendary fight. Indeed, actor Malick Bowens and director Spike Lee(Mr. Lee, by the way, did not actually attend the fight)were given reasonable time during the interview segments, but Norman Mailer and George Plimpton were obviously given the forefront. But the 1974 footage provided is absolutely extraordinary. Plus, the screen positively explodes every time “The Greatest” appears on camera. How resounding was Ali’s 1974 victory over Foreman in the jungles of Africa? So much so, that it appeared the surly Foreman would never recover from it. It took George over a year to step back into a ring as a professional—and then he was nearly beaten by former Ali knockout victim, Ron Lyle. And a little more than a year after that he took a decade-long hiatus from boxing, after suffering a knockdown and a unanimous-decision loss to the light-hitting Jimmy Young.

It can be argued however, that Foreman’s own amazing ring return, only occurred after he managed to transform himself into Ali. Suddenly gregarious, affable, and hawking fat-burning grills, the formerly truculent Mr. Foreman, appeared on talk shows and entertained reporters and supporters during ring interviews and press conferences alike. It was capped by Foreman regaining the championship 20 years after he lost it—and at the ripe old age of 45! The transformation has made George Foreman a fortune—his reported 250 million dollar fortune dwarfs that of Ali. Foreman was believed invincible when his career first got underway, and it took him a long time to come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t. And the fighter that mastered him is today celebrating a golden anniversary. Sometimes forgotten in the Ali legend is just how incredible of an athlete he proved himself to be. But as commentator George Plimpton says in this award-winning documentary, “what a fighter he was…and what a man.”     Grade:  A-

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