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From the archives:: Muhammad Ali: Zaniness in Zaire

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali playfully throws a fist at the camera while promoting his fight against George Foreman in Zaire in October 1974.

(Howard Bingham)

Under moonlight at 3 o’clock in the morning, without a sound but frogs croaking in symphony along the banks of a mighty 2,900-mile river that coursed from the South Atlantic through the veins of Africa’s continent, Muhammad Ali suddenly appeared, moving at a jogger’s gait in heavy work boots. Right behind Ali, huffing and puffing, came another man, old enough to be his father. He was Norman Mailer, the noted author, who had persuaded Ali to permit him to tag along.

Mailer, short and stocky and dressed in gray sweats, began wheezing and pulled up, gasping, “Champ! Champ . . . I’m going to . . . I’m going to . . . stop.”

He doubled over. On ran Ali, along the desolate pathway, a mile from the city lights of Nsele, away from the presidential compound and the estuary where two splendid craft were moored. One was the Mama Mobutu, a hospital ship. The other was a three-tiered luxury yacht belonging to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, ruler by revolution of the West African republic of Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, and reportedly the world’s seventh-wealthiest man.

Flapping in the riverbank breeze from atop the yacht was the green national flag of Zaire, with its proud emblem, a hand clutching a torch. It was the stated goal of President Mobutu to expose the rest of civilization to the beauty and resources of his country. That explained why he had personally invited two internationally known figures of Western sport to stage a heavyweight championship fight right there in Zaire, baiting them with a previously unheard-of $5 million apiece.

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Certain things were obvious about Muhammad Ali and his opponent, George Foreman. One was that Ali was very possibly one of the two most famous living Americans of the autumn of 1974, the other, Richard M. Nixon, having weeks before resigned his position as President. The other was that Ali was no longer champion. Foreman was champion. And two things were as certain of Foreman as could be certain of anyone — one, that he was as marvelous a specimen of physical manhood as one might find (and always would be), and two, that he was one surly SOB without an ounce of personality or sweetness (and always would be).

Mailer wanted to see Foreman’s block knocked off and wanted to believe that Ali was still capable of doing so. Yet this was the Ali who had sacrificed his crown to a boycott of the Vietnam war based on religious beliefs, and it also was an Ali whose comeback had been interrupted by a wicked hook from Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who with persistence had finally discovered a way to wallop one of the world’s most elusive butterflies. Ali, quite possibly, was washed up.

Mailer had gone to Africa to write a nonfiction account of “The Rumble in the Jungle,” as this fight was being advertised by some verbose ex-convict who had somehow talked his way into promoting his first big fight, a numbers runner from Cleveland who had been convicted of manslaughter named Don King. Also there were some of the author’s contemporaries such as the Mitty-esque “participatory journalist” George Plimpton, assigned to the exotic location by Sports Illustrated to chronicle his experiences there, and Hunter S. Thompson, the so-called “gonzo journalist” who would eventually forward something to Rolling Stone magazine, soon as he got back from searching through the jungle for illegal elephant tusks, fugitive war criminals and Pygmies.

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Most mornings, some or all of these correspondents could be found breakfasting at the Hotel Inter-Continental, where, beyond the balustrade, men made music on drums and xylophones. At a typical Inter-Continental breakfast, ceiling fans rotated above, customers sank into wicker plantation chairs and slim bellhops carrying chalkboards bearing messages tinkled Buddhist temple bells to page guests. Thompson, wearing aviator shades and Acapulco shirts and smoking with a cigarette holder, frequently tipped these bellhops to page R. Nixon or, more often, Martin Bormann, the Nazi war criminal who, Thompson had become convinced, was hiding out somewhere in the jungle.

That morning, Mailer regaled listeners with the tale of his morning roadwork with Ali. After Mailer had stopped, Ali disappeared up a steep grade. The beep of a horn startled Mailer, who was passed by several members of Ali’s entourage, following their idol in a Volkswagen van. Mailer gagged on its exhaust.

Then, as he began the trudge back to town, from the pitch darkness Mailer heard another noise. Not frogs. Not a horn. This one was low and guttural — frightening. It came from the nearby dense brush. Mailer paused, then pressed on. But after one more step, the clearing of a throat became a full-blown roar. The unmistakable roar of a lion. Mailer had seen enough MGM movies to know what one sounded like. He did not care to meet one in person.

By the time he reached the hotel for breakfast, however, his close encounter with the real king of the jungle had taken on new cosmic significance in Mailer’s mind. Something had suddenly occurred to this literary luminary — wow, what a way to go. To be devoured in equatorial Africa by a savage lion, to become its brunch, what better way of meeting one’s maker? Particularly one who believed himself so illustrious in life that all he really needed to be immortalized was a dramatic ending. Hemingway had his shotgun. Mailer would have his lion.

“Il a nourriture lion!” said one of the French-speaking Africans who surrounded Mailer’s table, gabbing excitedly as they translated the writer’s story.

(“He is the lion’s food!”)

And then they began laughing.

And so did Plimpton, who finally had to turn to Mailer, who had no idea what this was all about.

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“Norman,” Plimpton said. “No lions run free in this part of Africa.”

And Mailer said, “You’re nuts.”

Plimpton shook his head.

“No, Norman,” he said, breaking the news gently. “What you heard . . . was the Zaire zoo.”

Whereupon some of the Africans around the wicker table began laughing again heartily, one of them scratching the air with his hand like a paw and roaring loudly, doing an imitation of a lion.

---

The fight went off on Oct. 30, 1974, not on schedule. In the weeks after Watergate and the resignation of Nixon, it was a transitional period in America, with war veterans out of work as well as their commander in chief. Americans were watching “Kojak” suck lollipops on television and listening to Bill Withers’ “Use Me” on the radio and going to see the new Charles Bronson vigilante flick, “Death Wish,” actually using the word flick. Two days before Nixon quit, a 24-year-old French stuntman named Philippe Petit had toed a tightrope 90 feet between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, 1,350 feet above the ground.

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Nixon, whose situation had been far more precarious for months, climbed into his copter and did the V wave with his fingers, one last time. Days later, the world’s attention began turning to a main event planned for Sept. 25 in faraway Kinshasa, Zaire, where, same as he had before fighting Sonny Liston, the pugilistic poet Ali was reciting some of his worst verse ever, while claiming that he would regain the title that was rightfully his.

His latest went:

“You think the world was shocked

“When Nixon resigned?

“Just wait till I whup

“George Foreman’s behind!

“Float like a butterfly

“Sting like a bee.

“His hands can’t hit

“What his eyes can’t see!

“Now you see me.

“Now you don’t.

“George thinks he will.

“But I know he won’t.”

Foreman, like Liston, wasn’t having any of it. He was distant, sullen. He cared only for his two German shepherd pups and barely acknowledged his own press agent except when he needed an opponent for Ping-Pong. Everyone had come to fear Foreman, whose last act of civility had seemed to be waving a miniature American flag from the ring at the 1968 Summer Olympics, where, as Ali had eight years before, he won a gold medal. On Jan. 22, 1973, Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier, destroyed him really, and seemed not only invulnerable but mean.

“You’re young, you don’t know what you’re doing, you just want to knock down everybody that gets into your way,” Foreman recalls in his hotel room in Los Angeles, preparing himself, astoundingly — almost absurdly — for another shot at the heavyweight title on Saturday, 20 years from the rumble in the jungle.

“There I was in a business specifically made for guys exactly the opposite of me. Outgoing guys. Promotin’ guys. You take Ali, he was what everybody called a ‘classy’ fighter. A ‘classic’ boxer. But why was he a classic boxer? I remember hitting him in maybe the second round. I hit him so hard in the chest, pow! And he gave me a look like, ‘I’m not going to stand here and take this!’ And I gave him everything I had, and I remember him saying when the round was over (imitating Ali’s whisper), ‘I made it. I survived.’ ”

On the day Ali arrived at the airport for his flight, each of the men in his entourage wore a dashiki, or similar African tunic. The consciousness of being “Afro-American” was at an all-time high. Ali was proud to be associated with a boxing promotion that would involve black athletes, black promoters, black spectators, black politicians, black financiers. He felt fit and happy. Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” boomed from the cassette player one of his bodyguards carried. He expressed no fear of Foreman. He didn’t mind being a 7-1 underdog.

This was the actual day a Pan-Am pilot announced, “Please fasten your seat belts for takeoff.”

And Ali yapped, “Superman don’t need no seat belt!”

And a stewardess said, “Superman don’t need no airplane.”

Struck beneath the belt, Ali laughed aloud and enjoyed the transatlantic flight. Behind him, Mailer and Plimpton invented a game to pass the time, one they called “What do he do?” The object was to figure out who was whom among Ali’s entourage — and who did what?

Plimpton, over lunch 20 years later at a Los Angeles bistro, recounted that one fellow, hired as a chauffeur, was paid $50,000 for what Ali described as “driving and jiving.” Another was a large man identified simply as Big Black, who was a professional drummer whose job was to beat on a drum whenever Ali landed a punch.

“Another fellow was Ali’s official sweat-taster,” Plimpton added.

His what?

“This man’s job was to sample Ali’s perspiration after a workout to see if it tasted salty,” Plimpton said.

So much for lunch.

At the airport near Kinshasa, a poster of President Mobutu’s bespectacled face was as large and prominent as Citizen Kane’s when he ran for office. On the poster was written: “Un cadeau de President Mobutu au People Zairois.” (“A gift of President Mobutu to the people of Zaire.”) And below that: “Et un honneur pour l’homme noir.” (“And, an honor for the black man.”) French had been the official language of this region since King Leopold of Belgium declared it his personal property in 1884, yet about two-thirds of the population also spoke Bantu languages — Hamitic, Nolotic, Sudanic and Pygmy dialects.

Off the plane stepped Ali.

“My country! My people!” he shouted to the gathered throng from atop a portable staircase. Mobutu himself had led a company of soldiers onto the Tarmac, literally rolling out a red carpet.

Mobutu saluted.

“My people!” Ali continued. “My people gonna put George Foreman in a pot and cook him!”

Translators whispered into Mobutu’s ears. His expression changed. Such jokes did not amuse him. This was exactly the sort of dated stereotype of Africans by Americans — even by Afro-Americans — that infuriated him, that made him invite these fighters to Zaire to demonstrate how cultured and civilized West Africa had become. Ali’s men yelled: “Right on!” They shook fists in brotherhood. Mobutu frowned.

A translator, Tshimpumpu wa Tshimpumpu, introduced himself.

“Greetings on your safe arrival. I will serve as your press attache for the championship fight,” the rotund Tshimpumpu said in excellent English. “On behalf of President Mobutu and our people, welcome! President Mobutu expresses his desire that I offer our nation’s hospitality to the celebrated Monsieur Muhammad Ali, but also wishes to reassure you that there will be no cannibals cooking anyone in any pots.”

Ali’s entourage laughed. Mobutu’s didn’t.

“Bienvenue,” Mobutu said.

Welcome to the rumble.

*

The landscape was lush and green, understandably so for a nation with 50 to 80 inches of rain annually. There were cotton and coffee plantations visible from Ali’s limo, roadside signs in both English and French.

Four signs in sequence, like Burma Shave ads, read: “We Want to Be Free.” “Our Road of Progress Must Not Be Impeded.” “Even If We Must Forge Our Way Through Rock.” “Then We Will Forge Our Way Through Rock.”

The limo traveled this road into the busy business district of Kinshasa, population 2.5 million, former vortex of slave and ivory traders, until recently known as Leopoldville.

Parakeets, hundreds of them, occupied an enormous cage in the lobby of the Hotel Inter-Continental. The concierge and other employees wore dark blue, no-lapel suits known as aboscos. After independence had been won from the Belgians, revolution was followed by a bloody civil war and public executions were carried out right here in the hotel, in this very lobby.

Now, more fighting had come to Kinshasa. Two professionals would engage in hand-to-hand combat at the Stade du 20 Mai (Twentieth of May Stadium, named for independence day), and on the first day these gladiators were introduced to the locals, many of them began a chant that would become familiar in the weeks to come:

“Ali bome aye!

“Ali bome aye!”

Mailer recalled turning to Plimpton to ask what it meant.

He was told: “‘Ali . . . kill him!”’

For his fame, for his nature, Ali had already become the people’s choice. He had even embraced Mobutu on the stand, finding him rigid. The Zairois loved it. Foreman, meantime, strode into the football stadium with his two German shepherds, tall, dark and silent. He gave the leashes to two overweight men accompanying him. Then the crowd parted to let baleful George pass and mount the steps to the stage.

Once atop it, Foreman spoke not one word. Instead he peeled off his warmup jacket, revealing his rippling bare physique. From the audience came an audible gasp. Foreman flexed, striking poses as a bodybuilder would.

“Forty fights, 40 victories, 37 knockouts,” Plimpton said, from memory.

“Two things about Foreman,” Mailer responded. “He’ll never have much of a personality, but he’s got that body.”

Oh, how things change. For one, no one envisioned Foreman ever being hurt. He seemed indestructible. At a sparring session, however, Foreman injured his forehead, necessitating a postponement of the fight. This agitated some of the tourists and journalists who had made the long journey, many of whom, Mailer among them, went home.

This also created a disturbance in the Nsele presidential compound of Mobutu, the one adorned with a gigantic pagoda donated to him by his good friends, the Communist Chinese. At the news of the postponement, Mobutu put his armed soldiers on full alert. He considered imprisoning Ali and Foreman, convinced by advisers that Foreman’s injury was a dodge and that both fighters would return to America without refunding Mobutu’s money.

Ali remained merry. He sang out, “I rassled with a gator! Tussled with a whale! I murdered a rock! Injured a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”

Mobutu’s men kept an eye on Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, and his sycophant, Bundini Brown, and even his stunning wife, Belinda Ali, to gauge how restless any of them were getting. No one was to leave Zaire. And further agitating Mobutu was this chatterbox of a promoter, Don King, the great sesquipedalian, who was busy dispensing posters advertising this fight as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” a name of King’s own creation. That one was fine. But what Mobutu objected to was King’s other brainstorm, a slogan that went: “From the Slave Ship to the Championship!” Mobutu ordered those posters burned.

He also burned tickets to the fight on which his name was misspelled. Costs were soaring. There had better be a fight.

It was reset for Oct. 30.

*

“One fighter is a mute and the other never shuts up,” Plimpton complained, as he remained behind for 55 days in Zaire.

Mailer, back again, had gone slightly mad, stepping out onto the terrace of his seventh-story room where there was no railing. Mailer said, “I find most of Zaire to have all the appeal of the Greyhound bus station in Easton, Pa.”

Thompson had taken a boat and a guide upriver toward the Ituri forest. He wanted to buy tusks. He wanted to find Martin Bormann, living in a hut. He wanted to find a Pygmy and he wanted somebody to tell him if a cobra could eat a Pygmy. Thompson also had taken to telling people that he was Foreman’s personal doctor, and that he intended to remove George’s lymph glands 24 hours before the fight. Africans nodded.

“I went nuts myself,” Foreman recalls. “I was having some crazy dream about my dogs wearing ice skates. Don’t ask me why. But then, there really were people out to get me. People sending up food to my room, tryin’ to make me sick. That was the only way they could beat George, same as today. Pull a trick on George. Use every trick in the book on George. That’s what Ali did and that’s what people been doing ever since.”

When fight day arrived, Foreman was flustered. He had food-tasters sample every morsel. He sat alone, reading Superman comic books. He played Ping-Pong with his press agent, Bill Caplan, but didn’t speak to him. Rain clouds arrived and Foreman’s mood turned darker. Last-minute repairs had to be made to the ring, including installation of a canopy. Then Ali’s guy, Dundee, had the ropes adjusted without Foreman’s knowledge, loosening them. Inexperienced African laborers scrubbed the rosin from the canvas, mistaking it for dirt.

Then Foreman suddenly announced the fight was off, unless he was paid up front for his next fight.

Ali was cool as could be. He killed time watching horror movies on TV, hiding his face behind a pillow as “Baron of Blood” with Joseph Cotten came on. Ali began referring to Foreman as “the Mummy.” He said the films frightened him more than George did.

At ringside, Don Dunphy’s familiar voice called into a microphone:

“It’s a beautiful evening here in Kinshasa, Zaire, for the heavyweight championship of the world. We’re ready for the start of what may be an epic battle.”

However, it wasn’t evening. It was 4 a.m., but it was fight time anyway, thanks to a radio broadcast and closed-circuit telecast back to the States. Under skies that continued to threaten rain, Ali stepped into the ring wearing white trunks with a black waistband, having passed on the satin jacket with the map of Zaire on the back that Bundini Brown had begged him to wear. Foreman wore red trunks with a blue band and a “GF” monogram. He looked ferocious.

Plimpton said, “I’m afraid our friend Ali isn’t going to win.”

Mailer replied, “I’m afraid our friend Ali isn’t going to survive.”

Above them, Ali’s white trunks were pinned against the ropes. And his arms offered no resistance. Foreman was punching Ali’s torso at will. Ali put up little defense.

Dunphy announced, “This is not the Ali we expect! He is not floating like a butterfly or stinging like a bee!”

Ali just stood there, getting hit.

Mailer said, “Oh, my God.”

Plimpton said, “It’s a fix.”

On the apron, in the challenger’s corner, Bundini Brown began to scream at Ali, “You crazy? You crazy? Get off them ropes!”

But on his stool, as an elegant African maiden in an ankle-length garment carried a card that read “ROUND 2,” Ali heeded very little of what was being said to him at ringside or in his corner.

The fight continued. Mobutu sat up high, beneath an even larger poster of himself. Hunter Thompson was a no-show, having stayed behind at his hotel, totally strung out. Thousands of African people implored Ali to do something — “Ali bome aye! Ali bome aye!” — but all he did was sag against the loose ropes, taking punishment from Foreman’s massive arms.

Foreman, reflecting:

“That was my first experience with cowardice as strategy. I hit, I hit, I hit, and he grabbed, he held, he ran. And nobody told Ali once to come out of his corner and fight. They all said later it was the rope-a-dope — he laid on that rope and I, like a dope, punched myself out. And all these years later, people still asking me, ‘George, isn’t it smart for a fighter to get out of the way?’ And I still say, ‘No, I would never be no coward. I got to face my kids.’ ”

But it worked.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, Ali clearly whipped me,” Foreman said, with two decades to think about it. “It’s the method that’s so shameful. No honor in it. Ali was no coward. He did what he had to do, is all.”

About Round 7, Ali struck back. Foreman was exhausted. His punches, even Dunphy observed, lacked the snap of those earlier in the fight.

“He did it on purpose!” Mailer said. “He made Foreman tire himself out!”

Plimpton asked, “Aren’t you glad we came?”

Ali’s personal drummer, Big Black, began keeping time on his conga, bopping it with every Ali punch. Bundini Brown began hopping up and down.

Dunphy shouted, “A right to the jaw and George Foreman goes down!”

Cut like timber, Foreman toppled face forward.

A bald, African-American referee, Zack Clayton, bent over Foreman’s body and counted to 10. Ali danced.

“He has regained the heavyweight championship of the world!” Dunphy cried. “Ali has done the impossible!”

And the clouds burst.

*

A couple of hours later, a convoy of military Jeeps negotiated a muddy road on the Kinshasa outskirts, national flags waving from each antenna. A reception line of native sons and daughters, as far as the eye could see, stood protected from the rain by palm fronds. From a Citroen car in the middle of the military vehicles protruded the arms of Ali, slapping palms with the people he passed.

Ali eventually lost his title to Leon Spinks and lost much of his physical prowess and enthusiasm. Foreman quit boxing, became a minister and had many sons, all named George, then returned to boxing. Twice as cheerful and twice as large, he will attempt to regain his championship belt Saturday against Michael Moorer in Las Vegas.

He says, “You want to know something funny? When I’m with Ali now, I feel like taking care of him. Like he’s my brother and he needs me. Ain’t life funny?”

Mailer wrote a book about the fight called “The Fight,” then ran for mayor of New York, unsuccessfully.

Plimpton, for his own amusement, boxed a round with Archie Moore, did a movie with John Wayne and played goalie for the Boston Bruins, same as he had once played quarterback for the Detroit Lions.

They found Hunter Thompson floating naked in the pool at the hotel after the fight. Thompson squinted into the morning sun, looked up and asked, “Who won?”

Note: This article was originally published on Oct. 30, 1994.

 


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