'When We Were Kings', Revisited

A 1970s montage of music, politics, and boxing

Posted 3/28/21

So far, 2021 hasn’t been kind to the boxing world. On February 5th, 2021, former heavyweight fighter Leon Spinks

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'When We Were Kings', Revisited

A 1970s montage of music, politics, and boxing

Posted

So far, 2021 hasn’t been kind to the boxing world. On February 5th, 2021, former heavyweight fighter Leon Spinks passed away at the age of 67. His death was followed several weeks later by that of Marvin ‘Marvelous’ Hagler, the man who ruled the middleweight division in the 1980s. But in between, pugilism also lost 84-year-old Leon Gast, a figure less known to the public because he left his mark behind the camera rather than inside the ring.

Gast was the Director behind the film “When We Were Kings”, a documentary that chronicled the 1974 heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Famously dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the bout took place in the African country of Zaire (former Congo) and for its depiction on the big screen, Gast earned an Academy Award.

Considered one of the greatest sporting events of all time, everything about the Ali-Foreman match resembled a collage that was as bizarre as it was quintessential 1970s: black pride fused with soul and blues, and set against the backdrop of a post-colonial African nation ruled by a cold war dictator. It took 22 years to release the film, which only added to the lore around the epic match.

A veritable cocktail of sights and sounds, “When We Were Kings” serves up a fight that was preceded by 3 days of musical rhythms and local lifescapes. An unscripted take on African roots, Gast’s camera courses through performances of James Brown, B.B. King, and others, interspersed with native drum beats and smiling children. Commentaries are provided by Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Thomas Hauser, and Spike Lee, all of whom attended the giddying festival.

Gast was a young director who had already made a film about the New York Latin music scene. After hearing about Don King’s plan to stage a boxing match with a music festival in Kinshasa, Zaire, he set out for the dark continent to document what was billed as the “Black Woodstock”. But years later when it came time to edit the shoot, he and his co-producer decided to focus on the fight itself and the surreal atmosphere it produced.

The hyped duel pitted 32-year-old Ali against an unbeaten Foreman who was 7 years his junior. Foreman had ascended to the top of the boxing podium by knocking out formidable rivals Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Past his prime, Ali was a 4-1 underdog going into the fight and even Howard Cosell, the renowned sports broadcaster who followed Ali’s career closely, stated that “the time may have come to say goodbye to Muhammad Ali”.

Putting it all together was Don King, the frizzy-haired boxing promoter who was searching for his breakout moment in the business. King convinced Ali and Foreman to fight for $5 million each, but he couldn’t find a venue or a sponsor to finance his ambitious project. He looked overseas and found them both in Zaire’s leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, who saw the festival as an opportunity to raise his own profile around the world.

In the film, Mobutu is shown finely dressed, striding among his people with a leopard-skin hat and a carved walking stick. Described by Mailer as the “archetype closet sadist”, Mobutu reportedly cleaned up crime in Kinshasa in the days prior to the fight by rounding up hundreds of known hoodlums and randomly executing a large number of them as a warning to the rest.

Gast’s 89-minute montage opens up at a press conference in New York’s Waldorf Astoria with Ali rhyming and ranting in his characteristic style about the upcoming fight against Foreman. “…only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.” The film proceeds to clips and interviews of the prize fighter at different stages of his career before the lead-up to Zaire.

Once in Africa, Ali’s charismatic persona overshadows the quieter, laconic Foreman. Both are captured training, but Ali’s presence generates greater euphoria as he mingles among the locals who follow him with chants of “Ali, bom aye! Ali, bom aye!”, or “Ali, kill him!”. An unknown figure to Zairians, Foreman hardly won their affection when he stepped off the plane in Kinshasa with his German Shepherd, a breed that was associated with the Belgian security forces when Congo was still a colony.

As the build-up to the fight intensified, it was suddenly announced that Foreman injured his eye in a sparring accident and required stitching. The unexpected news is shown reverberating around the boxing camps and media circles as everyone ponders what will follow next. Stuck in Zaire for an unknown period of time, Ali initially considered rescheduling the face-off back home, or even taking on Joe Frazier who came to witness the fight. But there was no turning back.

Six weeks later, the heavyweight champs finally entered the ring in the early morning hours of October 30, 1974. The encounter was set for 4 am to accommodate TV viewership in the U.S. Surrounded by machine-gun toting soldiers and under the watchful gaze of an outsized portrait of Mobutu, 60,000 Zairians filled the 20th of May Stadium, a soccer venue built by their colonial masters more than 20 years earlier.

It was in this dizzying equatorial heartland that Muhammad Ali stunned the world with an historic upset, caught on camera in all its thrilling moments. Faring poorly at first in the opening rounds, Ali changed tactics by employing his now famous “rope-a-dope” strategy. Up against the ropes with his arms held high to absorb Foreman’s relentless blows, he exhausted his opponent by the 5th round before coming to life with a final knockout in the 8th.

While many of the foreigners who descended on Kinshasa for the fight left after the delay was announced, Gast stayed on and kept the cameras rolling. But he hit a financial wall when he came back home and realized there was no money to stitch the film. Ticket sales from the festival were supposed to pay for his production costs, but Mobutu ended up granting free access to the events in order to drum up attendance.

Gast also didn’t have the film reels in his possession. In another saga to the release of “When We Were Kings”, the tapes were held by a London-based company ultimately controlled by Stephen Tolbert, the Liberian Minister of Finance. But before Gast could finalize a deal with Tolbert, the Liberian died in a plane crash (6 months after the Ali-Foreman fight). With the help of his lawyer, David Sonenberg, Gast sued in a British court to retrieve the film.

Money was still short to complete the extensive editing job that was needed for the 300,000 feet of audio and film footages that were recorded. Years later, Sonenberg reappeared as a co-producer and together they released the movie at the 1996 Sundance film festival. The following year, Ali, Foreman, Gast, and Sonenberg were all on stage at the Academy Awards, holding the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

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