When We Were Kings
A Foregone Conclusion
When We Were Kings, a film about the 1974 'rumble in the jungle' in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, is important almost despite itself, as though director Leon Gast, got lucky and didn't quite ruin what he had. What makes it a work of some importance is that it achieves two things. First, it contextualises Muhammad Ali's significance within a socio-political environment. Secondly, it captures the tension that makes boxing perhaps the best sport for cinema. One is saying nothing in emphasising the latter. Whether the films are examinations of violence (like Raging Bull), failure (Fat City) or hyperbolic achievement (Rocky III), whether the films are masterpieces, modest successes or box-office bonanzas, boxing appears to contain within it a simplicity and complexity that few other sports possess. The simplicity lies in how little a viewer needs to know to comprehend the action. Following a game of cricket, snooker, golf or chess, isn't just a sedate experience, it is also a more complicated one as the rules need to be understood to make sense of the action. In boxing, two men get into a ring and one tries to knock the other one out. There is a lot more to a fight than that, and it does one no harm to know a bit about southpaws, cornering, right-hand leads, using the ropes and clenching, but there is a brute base to boxing that needs little explanation. However, there is also the complex mental state of one whose job it is to punch someone as hard as they possibly can while avoiding getting hit back. Injury isn't a side-effect of performing, as it is in other contact sports like football, rugby or ice hockey. The boxer's very purpose is to injure another human being. It is partly of course why many see it as a barbaric sport and why there are constant pleas to ban it. "Boxing is a senseless waste of life and the time has come for it to be banned" (The Standard) insisted an executive of a brain charity. It is no wonder that many in the medical profession wish to see the sport outlawed: the British Medical Association has supported a ban since 1982 and why wouldn't they when it is their surgeons who have to give brain surgery to fighters for no other reason than that someone has pummelled them deliberately for a series of rounds. So dangerous is boxing seen to be that often surgeons are close to hand, aware that any delay could be the death of the fighter. The Guardian reports of a recent British boxer, someone who lost consciousness in the ambulance as he was taken to the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, where he was given a scan that revealed a haemorrhage on the right side of his brain. Immediately, he was transferred to the Royal Hallamshire and surgery, which lasted two and a half hours, began only 45 minutes after he was knocked out." It may be one thing to get hurt in an accident but a boxing match is an intention not an accident; it is a deliberate act of violence. Speaking of Foreman in training, watching Foreman hit the punch bag, Norman Mailer said, "each of these blows was enough to smash an average athlete's ribs; anybody with poor stomach muscles would have a broken spine." (The Fight) Or as Mike Tyson bluntly put it: I "catch them right on the tip of the nose. That`s because I try to push the bone of the nose right up into the brain.''." (Chicago Tribune)
Yet over the years, numerous writers have been drawn to the sport, not only Mailer, who wrote a book about the event, The Fight, and eloquently offers remarks about both boxing and the boxers' psyche in the film; others too have been attracted to it as reporters or novelists as they would have been unlikely to be drawn to more sedate sports. Paris Review editor George Plimpton (who appears in the film), Leonard Gardner and Joyce Carol Oates have all written well on the sport. Oates wrote a book 'On Boxing" but was also drawn to it fictionally, with 'The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza' and 'Golden Gloves'. Oates reckons it is the very fact that the damage done is not accidental which is central to its almost ontological appeal - its capacity to say something about life by going beyond the rudiments of its usual contours. "Boxing's claim is that it is superior to life in that it is, ideally, superior to all accident. It contains nothing that is not fully willed." (On Boxing) Perhaps though that it potentially has the force of an accident which been willed is what so fascinates. When a footballer is injured it usually rests on happenstance no matter the violent cheating often seen by players scything others to the ground. Yet in boxing there is a sense that one boxer has another man's life in his hands literally: that those fists can potentially put a man in an early grave and it wouldn't be an accident if one did so, recalling Tyson's remark.
Reading Mailer's book alongside watching Leon Gast's film, we see the difference between a meditation on the sport and the adrenalization of it. Gast originally went to Zaire to film the music festival that was taking place in conjunction with the boxing match. Yet when the fight was delayed for six weeks, Gast also picked up lots of footage extraneous to the festival but that gave us twenty years later, after Gast spent years working on the material, When We Were Kings. One of the film's strengths lies in its decision to play up the suspense involved in a fight no matter if everyone interested would already know the result. What Gast proves is that even if we know Ali won the bout, we can still be interested in its outcome. It is an ostensible paradox in documentaries based on well-known historical facts, and all the more so if the director emphasises the tension involved in relating them to us. Yet this type of documentary has been a growth area in recent decades: Touching the Void, Senna, Man on Wire, Free Solo all involve the viewer engaging with events that have a categorical outcome as if somehow they didn't. When in Free Solo, the climber takes on a mountain face without any support, the film places us in a position that makes us wonder whether he will survive, even if anybody interested in the sport will know that he does. In Man on Wire, few watching the film will not know that Philippe Petit crossed the Twin Towers on a wire and lived. Yet suspense there is. Early in When We Were Kings, Mailer says that Ali "had to know that he had not done nearly as well against two fighters, particularly Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, whom Foreman had demolished" as the film shows us footage of Foreman pounding the two fighters. The film cuts to Ali in a low-angle close up saying that "this chump has got everybody scared. Scared of what? Nothing to be scared of. Scared of what?" As he speaks the film cuts to high-angle shots of Foreman at work, showing exactly what Ali should be scared over. Then we have the sports commentator Howard Cossell saying to the camera that "the time has come to say goodbye to Muhammad Ali because very honestly I don't think he can beat George Foreman." Cossell got it right eighteen months earlier in Ali's first fight with Norton, saying before the judges made their decision after the 15 rounds that Norton had won the bout; here he was again making a call, and adding to it the gravest of tones. Many thought that Ali wasn't only going to lose the fight but that he was going to be very badly hurt in the ring.
The assumption was of course that if he did win he wouldn't be hurt but part of the film's unavoidable irony coming twenty years after the bout is that while we know he won we also know that he got hurt: many believe that the Parkinson's he suffered from wasn't unconnected to the many blows he received in this fight as well as numerous others before and after. "Some medical experts believe there could be something called pugilistic Parkinson's - Parkinson's caused by chronic traumatic brain injury." (BBC) Any retrospective pleasure one feels watching the film as Ali is about to face a certain defeat that of course turned into a victory, has to entertain too a retrospection that includes Ali's later life which would show him with slurred speech and shuffled movements. During that first fight with Norton, Ali fought with a broken jaw. At the end of the famous Frazier fight nicknamed the 'Thriller in Manila', Ali "reportedly told his trainers: "Man, this is the closest I've ever been to dying."(BBC) If the film takes full advantage of hindsight as it shows Ali lined up to lose a bout that he will then win, it cannot but acknowledge that in a wider time frame Ali suffered a defeat to his sensory-motor system. A film released a year after the fight would have had narrow insight (Ali's victory against Foreman in round eight) but wouldn't have had the broader insight of the twenty-plus years that contextualises Ali's life.
If the film possesses a major weakness it rests on acknowledging the added years without doing very much with them. It might have made more sense to end the film with the high of victory rather than the sentimentality of incorporating this added aspect of Ali's existence we would have the hindsight of the fight along with the sub-text of the illness. One of the achievements of Man on Wire is that it takes advantage of hindsight but leaves the broader context of which everyone would have been aware as an elephant in the room: that the very Twin Towers Petit crossed the moment after they were built, collapsed in 2001, seven years before the film's release. There we see in the film their construction as Petit can't wait to cross them, and how could anybody not also have in their mind their destruction by terrorism twenty-five years later? However, director James Marsh holds on the unity of the event and leaves the future to take care of itself in our own heads. It isn't just that there might be something tasteless, or at least tactless, in bringing into one man's astonishing achievement another that horribly dwarfed it; it is also that an aesthetic unity may have been lost.
One way of looking at this is to see Ali and Petit not as real-life figures, though they are, but filmic ones who may not be fictional but nevertheless must be dramatically unified for the purpose of the work. Imagine if Dirty Harry ended on a ten-minute coda showing that he had lost his prowess; The History of Violence with the central character ageing and now in a wheelchair; the young detective in Seven becoming an old man still devastated by the loss of his wife. We give examples from films where the central characters are in their physical prime and that is partly what the films are about. To turn them into films about ageing and loss would be a dramatic error, and we see something of this mistake in When We Were Kings. A documentary may not be a fiction but that doesn't mean it shouldn't demand unity. That it is based on real people can give the impression that we need to know about the life more generally but that is a misconception. What we need from a work is to know the conclusion of its premise. If someone were to make a film based on the punishment Ali took in the ring, and how much it impacted on his later Parkinson's, then of course an older Ali would be necessary in the context of the question initiated. But in When We Were Kings, the premise is whether Ali has any chance of beating so formidable a force as George Foreman. Ostensible digressions can be incorporated but only if they further the idea that Ali may just be able to defeat his undefeated opponent. When Gast opens the film on a low-angle of a singer as if possessed, crouched with a mic in her hand, and then cuts to Ali seated in a room with the net curtains closed saying "I was a slave four hundred years ago and I am going back home to fight among my people" it seems perfectly relevant not only because Ali wants to lay out his credentials as a fighter of just causes, he also changed his name to Muhammad Ali as a means to rid himself of Cassius Clay: a slave name he rejected in 1964. While Foreman retained the neutral name he was born with, Ali's nominality was controversial twice over, with Muhammad Ali representing a conversion to Islam and an affiliation with the black nationalist movement, The Nation of Islam. Ali wanted to make clear that if anyone represented black people in the fight it wasn't Foreman who had wandered through life without constant political conflict but Ali, who had of course lost his world championship title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Much of this is included in the film and relevant: that Ally was harnessing far greater resources around him than Foreman. Whether it was the music festival, the African children we see running through the streets early in the film, and then singing Ali's name, or the crosscutting between the Congo crisis in the early sixties to the concert taking place a decade later, Gast presses the editing into a broader context that nevertheless holds to the filmic through-line of Ali's determination to beat the world title-holder.
Ali's greatness wasn't only due to his boxing ability and if Ali had become a political figure after his fight career that would have been all very well but of no purpose to the documentary. In the sixties and seventies, though, Ali was an ongoing socio-political nuisance whose refusal to go to war was probably a bigger rejection of Vietnam for blacks than anything the student protest movement was capable of working up. As Ali said: "If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail. We've been in jail for four hundred years." (Alpha History) If Ali had no chance of winning the fight in Zaire on the basis of brute strength, he may have been able to do so by channelling a force much greater than his own. In the mid-seventies, some of the biggest heavyweights were using international locations: Ali fought Frazier in Manila, Foreman took out Norton in Caracas, and Frazier in Kingston. Usually, the point of these matches taking place across the world was chasing money and assuaging the egos of governmental leaders determined to put their nations on the map. The Ali/Frazier 'Thriller in Manila' was fought under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos; the one in Zaire was a gift to the people by President Mobutu, a vastly feared dictator who was responsible for the execution of Patrice Lumumba, a man seen by many as a martyr to the pan-African movement. Mailer gives some idea of the fear he provoked by discussing how Mobutu made the country safe for tourists during the musical festival and the fight. Before the bout, the criminal rate in Zaire was going up and a few white foreigners had been killed. Mobutu solved the problem with brutal simplicity: he rounded up a thousand criminals in the capital city Kinshasa, took them to the very stadium where the fight would take place, put them in holding pens below, and then randomly killed a hundred of them, allowing the other nine hundred to escape with their lives, all of them well aware that Mobutu wasn't interested in justice and fairness. All Mobutu wanted was to remove negative publicity of Zaire around the time of the fight and sure enough the crime rate went down. White people would be safe in black Africa. Such a detail may have played havoc with Ali's views of oppression in the States when the oppression in Zaire was far greater still but the film makes clear that Ali's focus lay in creating an energy that had little to do with the nuances of reality but relied on symbolic import. Ali was lighter-skinned than Foreman but managed to convince everyone that he was the black man in the fight, a position helped along by Foreman's claim that "Africa is the cradle of civilisation, everybody's home is Africa". It suggested that being in the country meant no more to him than for anyone who happened to be visiting. It was helped along even more by an enormous symbolic error on Foreman's part. He arrived in the country with a German shepherd for a pet that the Belgian colonialists in the Congo had used as police dogs. It suggested insult or ignorance but whatever the reason it worked well in Ali's favour. A chant became popular: Ali Bomaye - Ali, Kill him! If Ali was likely to face defeat based on his ability in the ring then he was doing everything to win the fight outside of it. While Foreman rarely left his base, admitting he never even saw one wild animal in all the time he was in Zaire, Ali was constantly out meeting people, trying to get a feel for a country that he saw as the source for his own heritage.
It was as though Ali always knew boxing was more than the power that would be unleashed in the ring and this may also be why writers like Mailer, Oates, Gardner and others have been so drawn to it as a sport: that if there is nothing simpler in terms of the rules than a sport which is based on someone trying to beat someone else half to death, there is nothing more complex than what sits behind such an activity being called a sport at all. Why would anyone want to spend their lives expecting to knock someone out or getting knocked out, well aware that nobody goes to a boxing match to watch two fighters skilfully avoiding each other until the judges come to a decision? If boxing is a contact sport isn't it also a blood sport? Some like ice hockey and American football have violent moments but boxing is the one sport where violence is the very purpose of the activity. As Joe Frazier put it: "Boxing is the only sport you can get your brain shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker book." Perhaps the closest to it is bullfighting, even if boxing is less ethically problematic since at least both participants agree in advance to the fight. (At one moment we see Ali skipping in the film, saying Foreman is the bull and Ali is the matador.) But like boxing, bullfighting has attracted numerous writers: most famously Hemingway (who also loved boxing) and Lorca. Both sports possess a ritualistic, gladiatorial dimension that suggests the primal as football, rugby, and certainly golf and cricket do not. It is as though any notion of skill and competence in boxing and bullfighting is subordinate to a self-conquering, an overcoming of fear that indicates the greatest opponent one faces is oneself. A third of the way through When We Were Kings, Mailer notes that Ali, who trained after Foreman, often passed by the large hall where the training took place and he never watched Foreman hitting the heavy bag. Mailer observed that if someone was to fight Foreman, the last thing they wanted to see was this massive man creating deep indentations in a piece of leather hanging from the ceiling. To watch an opponent you are facing dribble around three players in training before a football match might make you wary of looking a chump but dread would seem too strong a word. It would appear entirely apt to describe how a boxer might feel aware that they aren't just facing defeat but possible death too.
in his book, Mailer muses over the mental health of professional boxers and specifically of Foreman, saying, "there was, here, however, no question of wondering whether Foreman might be insane. The state of mind of a Heavyweight Champion is considerably more special than that. Not many psychotics could endure the disciplines of professional boxing." Yet Mailer sees that "a Heavyweight Champion must live in a world where proportions are gone. He is conceivably the most frightening unarmed killer alive." (The Fight) Mailer wonders if one reason why Ali inspired so much love was that he didn't look like he wanted to kill people, no matter the Ali Bomaye cheers he was happy to instigate. Yet even these shouts appeared festive rather than bloodthirsty, all part of a broader display that suggested the ring was merely the main arena of the performance but not the only one. Foreman seemed to think all that mattered was how you fought, that all you had to do was keep your mouth shut, reserve your strength and take on your opponent. Ali knew otherwise; that boxing wasn't just a physical sport it was also enormously a psychological one. When Mailer late in the book proposes similarities between chess and boxing he may start worrying about how far he could run with the idea but they are of course both one-on-one activities where the players rely on understanding an aspect of the opponent's psyche. This can happen in team sports too, especially for example in a penalty shoot-out where the penalty taker faces a goalie. "The penalty kick is the rawest distillation of psychology and repetitive practice in football." Edd Norval says, "it's the game at its most primal and basic." (These Football Times) But in boxing you are doing this for up to fifteen rounds and, unlike in chess, you are also trying physically to harm your nemesis. What reserves of psychological strength are required and should boxers find them inside or outside themselves? Foreman chose the former; Ali chose the latter and here the film is astute in not only following Ali more than Foreman, because it knew that Ali would win and why edit a film paying so much attention to the loser of the fight, but also because the peripheral energy so completely resides in how Ali harnessed it. When the film ostensibly digresses away from the match to focus on the musical festival this would have been irrelevant if Foreman had won, and the film had been about that victory, but it is essential in understanding an aspect of Ali's win. If Foreman was like a monk, in Mailer's estimate, then Ali was a shaman.
The film's achievement resides here. In almost every way, Mailer's book is superior to Gast's film but Gast has the advantage of an audio-visual medium and the footage he shot of a concert that he would have no idea might still be useful to him twenty years after the event, one that he uses to bring out the shamanistic dimension to Ali's victory, a dimension to Ali's performance that Mailer notes when he discusses Bantu philosophy. It is a philosophy that sees humans as forces, not beings. "By such logic, men or women were more than the parts of themselves, which is to say more than the result of their heredity and experience...a man was not only himself, but the karma of all the generations past that still lived in him, not only a human with his own psyche, but a part of the resonance, sympathetic or unsympathetic, of every root and thing." (The Fight) Foreman wished to access no more than the strength he displayed demolishing Norton and Frazier; Ali was determined to harness the forces all around him, to bring the energy of Africa into his soul and fight with all these added resources. Gast's film does a very good job of proposing what these resources were and even though Spike Lee says early on that "for these two great African-Americans to come home was of great, great significance", it was of significance really only to Ali, as Foreman made clear in his comment about everyone coming from Africa. Whether it is watching the kids running along the streets, BB King performing 'Sweet Sixteen', or James Brown and Don King eloquently expressing their views, the film keeps insisting that the fight is about much more than two people in the ring: it was two people of enormous wealth and success showing that someone can leave the country hundreds of years earlier in a slave ship and their ancestors can return in the second half of the 20th-century hugely successful. Both Ali and Foreman got $5m for the fight. King, who was behind getting the money together, says, "we left Africa in shackles, fetters and chains. And we are coming back in an aura of splendour and scintillating glory." King might add that Ali and Foreman are fused as one entity; that the return is a glory for black America that can't be disentangled but it is Ali who chooses to take full advantage of the energy King, Brown and others convey in their excitement over the project. Foreman looks like he didn't care where he was and that the circus around the fight was a useless distraction: the monk seeking peace and quiet. When the film cuts from an extreme close-up on Brown singing, to a tight close up of him talking, the freneticism the film offers has nothing to do with Foreman's stillness and is entirely in keeping with Ali's jabbering insolence. The film may have been put together with the full hindsight of Ali's victory but Gast was well aware that a Foreman victory wouldn't have left him with much to make a film with. All the music, the Ali press conferences, the hubbub around the fight, would have been extraneous details towards Foreman's imposing single-minded destruction of Ali.
It isn't just that the film deals with one of boxing's greatest ever upsets, it is also that, retrospectively, it doesn't look like much of an upset at all. There are numerous fights where the greater fighters get bested in a surprising victory for the underdog: whether it be Buster Douglas taking out Mike Tyson or Max Schmelling defeating Joe Louis, but in such instances, there is nothing more than the upset. If there wouldn't have been much of a film showing Foreman winning, there wouldn't have been much more of a film if it had shown Foreman just losing. When We Were Kings is formally successful as it shows in the accumulated accompanying footage the forces at work that contributed to Ali's victory. However, it is also dramatically strong because it explores an upset that doesn't look so surprising when providing a context that includes hindsight but isn't exclusively reliant on it. A match that is merely an upset returns us to the material and we cannot believe that the lesser boxer won, a fluke punch that caught the champion out, a bout of flu the hero hadn't quite recovered from; emotional chaos that the title-holder had become entangled within. All these would still leave the person who defeated him the lesser man. One needn't take anything from Buster Douglas to say that however impressive the flurry of punches he threw to knock Tyson down in round ten there wouldn't be much of a film in it. It could be interchangeable with any number of David and Goliath stories while Ali's victory suggested a more complicated mythology.
He was after all a former champion with years of experience in the ring, someone whose comeback was forced upon him since his temporary retirement in 1967 was mandatory: he didn't get a license to fight again until 1970. He was also much better known than Foreman, who had won the title only a year before the Ali fight, and if he had his David and Goliath moment it was a decade earlier when he fought Sonny Liston as a callow 22yr-old and even this would be debatable. The commentator Harry Carpenter thought Ali may have been in the process of "pulling off the greatest sensation of modern times" when Ali started to control the fight, after Carpenter showed surprise that Liston hadn't knocked Ali out in the first couple of minutes. Ali versus Foreman could never be couched as a mythical story of ostensible weakness against indubitable strength, which would be an interesting enough account, while Ali's first fight against Liston could make for an entertaining narrative about a surprising victory. But even there, Ali's immodesty would have gotten in the way. After beating Liston in the 7th, Ali tells anyone who will listen that he is the greatest. The way he describes knowing God, it sounds as if the privilege is not Ali's but the deity's. Imagine David full of hubris and self-belief and this would be close to Ali's earlier victory. As he shouts and yells in the ring after the first fight it is egotism gone wild, and any account of Ali at the time would have spent a lot of time understanding the mechanisms of that ego.
By the time of the Foreman fight, it wasn't that the ego was any smaller; more that it contained within it the selves of many others. When Ali first fought Foreman it was several months before the Civil Rights Act. A decade later, black America had enormously influential musicians (Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, BB King, James Brown and Marvin Gaye), politicians (the late Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael), writers (James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison), film people (Melvin van Peebles, Richard Roundtree, Sidney Poitier) and sports stars not only Ali and the other major heavyweight boxers but also Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe and of course Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both of whom so famously raised an arm and clenched their fists in a Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Ali may have been at least as significant as any of them but it was as though his boastfulness by the mid-seventies spoke to and for a people; that by going to fight in Zaire he was extending the cause into its roots. He wasn't any longer David but closer to Moses: someone who knew how to sermonise on the mount and who could return to Africa and lead his people to the promised land, which happened to be the very land they were living on as readily as the United States. If in 1964, Ali was no more than the 'Louisville lip", then a decade later he could with some justification claim to be the voice not only of Black America but blacks around the world. The film might well make much of the tension evident in the outcome of the fight but it has the advantage of making much of the tension that had turned Ali into such a major figure in international sport. If there is something fundamentally gladiatorial about boxing then there has also been a sense that those in the ring are like those in Ancient Rome who are there less for their own autonomous gain than for the empty glee of those watching. It is an ideal entertainment for the many, even if it is life or death for those in the colosseum. Ali more than any other fighter turned the sport away from one that had nothing to say politically into one that could be used to say a great deal indeed. Gast's film captures the force of that power; one far greater than the pummelling Foreman could give a punch bag. Foreman may have had immense strength in his fists but Ali also had it in a movement that could raise its fist in the air and proclaim a victory that needn't only be about throwing a punch. Who could argue by the mid-seventies that Ali hadn't become "the most visible symbol of Black Power's radical critique of American imperialism, structural racism and white supremacy"? (Reuters) Foreman could hardly compete with that and the film implies that was one of the many reasons he lost the bout. A fight that looked before it took place like a foregone conclusion seems in the context of the film, and the social milieu it maps out, as if a Foreman win would instead have been a forlorn one, as though something much greater would have been lost in his victory.
© Tony McKibbin