The Greatest will turn 70 soon. With this in mind, I re-watched When We Were Kings—the Oscar-winning documentary about Zaïre’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle” of 1974, involving an ageing Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champ George Foreman, and the awe-inducing “rope-a-dope” strategy.

The fight was made possible by Don King, a then-obscure promoter who had done time for stomping a man to death in Cleveland (he had been trialled previously for a separate murder but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence), and while imprisoned gorged on a Genet-like diet of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. Released, King applied some of Machiavelli’s logic in the deep shadows of boxing promotion, until the “Rumble in the Jungle” elevated him to the top of the food-chain. He is still there today, commanding a moribund sport with his eerie mix of amorality and charm. In 2004 he endorsed George W. Bush for a second term as President (he supported Obama in ’08).

When I consider King’s famous catch-phrase “Only in America!” I think of the America that rocketed a two-time killer and drug pusher to vertiginous heights in the boxing world—and subsequently American public life—and the America which ushered in a born-again ex-alcoholic as its two-term President. King’s and Bush’s America is a similar one… and an old one. It is an America which places its trust in possessive individualism, and leaves the intuitive web formed between self-interested peoples to determine society; it is an America which believes in a self-generating order where ambition and piety absolve aggression. America contains multitudes, but their America has served both gentleman well. Those words “Only in America!” join the two like a lightning rod welding sheets of metal, and so the strange sight of King and the GOP isn’t, perhaps, that strange after all….

King’s fight inspired an incredible mix of characters. There was, of course, Ali and Foreman and their respective entourages: a mix of doctors, trainers, sparring partners, and friends. There were big authors (George Plimpton and Norman Mailer were both there, and feature in this documentary as talking heads), and an international press corps. There were soldiers and black entertainers—BB King and James Brown were flown over for the event—but, despite King’s lofty promises, precious few American fight tourists.

There was also the country itself: Zaïre, formerly the Congo, and controlled by President Mobutu, a greater and more sickly spectre than King, who had viciously filled the vacuum left by the Belgians in 1960. In Norman Mailer’s book on the contest, The Fight, he relays this description of Mobutu’s politics, told to him by “a most intelligent American living in Kinshasa”:

Late last spring, the crime wave grew so intense that thieves were posing as policemen. The wives of Americans were getting raped. A nightmare for Mobutu if foreigners should arrive for the fight and get mugged en masse. So his police round up in a hurry three hundred of the worst criminals they can find and lock them in some holding rooms under the stadium. Then fifty of the three hundred were killed. Right there on the stone floor under the stadium. For all we know, some of them could have been shot in the dressing rooms of the fighters. The key to the execution was that it took place at random… No one said, “Kill this particular fifty.” No… the random destruction was more desirable. Fear among the criminal population would go deeper. Good connections with police are worthless in such an unstructured situation. For much the same reason the other two hundred and fifty criminals were let go. So they would tell their friends of the massacre. The crime rate for this brief period is down. Mobutism. Mayor, tycoon and tyrant all at once.

Welcome to Africa.

While Ali worked his considerable charm out in the streets, attempting, successfully, to win the love and respect of its people, Foreman hit the gym. One of the documentary’s most impressive scenes is of the champ working the heavy bag. A heavy bag, punched once or twice, by you or me, would not only fail to leave any impression, but could, if you were without the support of bandaging, dislodge a knuckle or two. In this one scene we see Foreman, working out in the same gym as Ali, pounding the heavy bag during a fifteen minute session. Left-right-left-right-left-right, creating a devastating momentum which sways his trainer, desperately holding on to the other side of the bag. The action resembles a wooden battering ram pounding the doors of a citadel.

After the session the bag records a dent the size of a child’s head, and Mailer cites the scene as one of the more prodigious things he has ever seen. Meanwhile, in Ali’s camp, and amongst the press, there were some that thought that Ali—the people’s hero, but the rank underdog—might actually be killed. It is not difficult to imagine why. Foreman was a freak.

Ali’s ostensible strategy for the fight was simple and forcefully proclaimed: he was gonna dance. During the weeks before the fight, Ali would boast about his speed and delight the press by performing animated mummy impressions. It was Ali’s caricature of Foreman: myopic, slow, dumb. But Foreman was no longer that simple or stupid a boxer, and most members of the press, while entertained by Ali’s histrionics, weren’t fooled: Ali was gonna get thumped.

Of course, Ali never did dance. He probably never intended to. Instead, he went to the ropes, a place you dread to be, particularly against one of the hardest hitting boxers in history. But Ali went there. He had a plan. A stupefying and sickening plan. He was going to let himself get hit. And hit. And hit. Protecting his stomach with his elbows, his ribs with his forearms, and his face with his fists, Ali lay back on the ropes, and allowed an imperfect defence to be broken by Foreman’s battering rams. Incredibly, Ali egged him on: “Is that all you got, George? That ain’t hard. I thought you was the champion, I thought you had punches.”

Before the fight Ali had been training himself to take hits. His sparring partner (and later heavyweight champ himself) Larry Holmes brutally conditioned Ali, as so he could withstand future onslaughts. His stomach muscles needed to be strong enough to protect the organs, and the spine behind it.

Of course, the rest is history. Ali had psyched Foreman, and suffered the great pains that went with executing his strategy. In the eighth round Foreman had completely punched himself out, and Ali sprung off the ropes, and landed a succession of head blows. Foreman went down. Ali was champ again. Joyce Carol Oates commented later: “I pondered what sly lessons of masochism Mailer absorbed from being ringside that day, what deep-imprinted resolve to outwear all adversaries.”

Ali was a much different boxer in his early days, and there was a beautiful and brutal aesthetic to the way he fought. Ali was so good, and so different, that he rendered the artistry of boxing axiomatic.

Ali (or as Cassius Clay) would fight with his gloves lowered, much different to the “peek-a-boo” style of, say, a young Mike Tyson. Ali’s defence was a silky evasion, an unorthodox and freakish capacity to dodge and dance. Ali would float around the ring, issuing lightning fast jabs, and, when he needed to, would lean sideways, backwards even, to avoid punches to the head. His evasions, when slowed, pay a remarkable similarity to the bullet evasion scenes in the first Matrix film. Try it.

Or, on second thought, don’t. The glamorisation of Ali is problematic, as are referrals to art, for it is that same fetishisation which conspired to keep Ali in the ring; prone to those sub-concussive blows that would later start his neural rot. The writer Garry Wills, once keen on the sport, is now repulsed, and his more recent writings on Ali stress a certain guilt he feels about celebrating the artistry that would later cripple the man:

This most articulate of men, who trained his young body as a holy thing, now lives inarticulate in the wreckage of that superb body, undone by the very skills it acquired… 

When I met Ali after his decay had set in, I was so disturbed that I decided never to watch a boxing match again. I have kept that pledge, not even going to see When We Were Kings when my friends raved about it.

Ali’s is a tragedy, yes, and certainly his mythology, fed by us, fed his megalomania. Certainly Ali fought too long, a protraction helped by glamour, but also by the questionable motives of promoters (and Don King rears his ugly head here). But be just as certain about this: Ali has never remarked with bitterness, not publicly at least, about his affliction. Ali has said that “boxing was just to introduce me to the world” and that without it he would be a “house painter in Louisville”. As Joyce Carol Oates once wrote about Ali: “who is to presume to feel sorry for one who will not feel sorry for himself?”

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