Boxing is an ugly thing. The outcome is considered a great success when one combatant has beaten the other into unconsciousness. Old boxers are a sad lot, a compound wreck of irreversible physical and mental damage. The details are well known. Yet no one seems to care all that much. As someone once quipped, “Sure, there have been deaths and injuries in boxing, but none of them serious.”
Underneath this fundamental ugliness is a greater wretchedness still. I think, for instance, of the opening of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, where a group of young blacks in the South are made to fight one another to the drunken joy of the white crowd in order to collect their “scholarships.” Muhammad Ali summed this ugliness up with his typical forthrightness. “Boxing,” he said, “is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”
And yet, it compels. Not always. Not even all that often. Not in a way that makes it possible to defend the sport of boxing in any rational way. Nevertheless, it compels. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of it, the literal way in which one either beats one’s opponent or is beaten by him. Whatever it is, there is no greater testament to boxing at its most compelling than When We Were Kings, the documentary by Leon Gast about the fight in 1974 (often referred to as the “Rumble in the Jungle”) between then-world champion George Foreman and an aging Muhammad Ali.
Don King — in his first real appearance on the international stage — organized the fight to take place in Zaire during the reign of Mobutu Sese Seko. The overlapping historical, political, and cultural tensions are so dense it is a wonder the whole place didn’t simply blow up. Here were two African-Americans going to a post-colonial country in Africa ruled by an enigmatic dictator during the chaotic and heady days (especially racially) of the early ’70s.
Ali, with his indomitable charisma and showmanship, managed to make himself the hero of the Congolese people, even though all the prevailing boxing wisdom foresaw the terrifying Foreman delivering a devastating beating to Ali. The chant on the streets was “Ali bomaye!” which means “Ali, Kill Him!” a national sentiment that could not have buoyed Foreman’s spirits. The documentary builds the tension by jumping back and forth between the competing boxers’ camps and cross-cutting to the ongoing musical festival that headlined such greats as B.B. King and James Brown. The explosion between African culture and African-American culture reaches a fever pitch.
The match was a revelation in tactics and strategy. Ali — who claimed he would dance his way to victory — comes out with a series of straightforward right-hand leads that catch Foreman off guard. Ali then retreats to the ropes and, in a display of what he called the “rope-a-dope” technique, bobbed and swayed against the ropes, taunting Foreman all the while. By the eighth round, an enraged Foreman has tired himself out trying to pummel Ali against the ropes. Seeing an opening, Ali charges out and delivers a massive right to the head that sends Foreman to the floor for the knockout. The miracle has occurred.
What does it all add up to when so many levels of meaning come together in one otherwise arbitrary meeting of men for the purpose of a sporting event? The documentary never puts forward a succinct conclusion. It leaves the thinking to the specific insights of Spike Lee, George Plimpton, and Norman Mailer, whose comments are interspersed with the live footage. But for all their insights, the event remains a paradox.
Norman Mailer was perhaps the most aware of and attentive to the central irreconcilability of the event. He saw boxing as primal and metaphorical at the same time. On one hand, the Rumble in the Jungle was all about politics and culture. It was a geo-political event of global proportions. On the other hand, any boxing match is deeply existential. It is about the violent struggle of one human being against another. Driven by the deepest emotion of fear, the goal is to turn that fear into violence. There is something essential, something irreducible about one man punching another man. This confrontation doesn’t produce any particular piece of knowledge or understanding. But it does reveal human beings in a naked state, fearful and fighting, deciding whether to beat or be beaten. The immense power of When We Were Kings is generated by the meeting of those two truths: a complex world in which every aspect of history and economics and politics relates to every other, and a very simple world, in which a fearful beast asserts his fundamental desire to live one day more. The genius of Muhammad Ali was that he had mastered both worlds. But he was never able to reconcile these worlds, for the simple reason that they are not reconcilable. Outside that ring in Zaire, the world. Inside, one tremendous punch by which one man felled another. • 25 March 2009