When We Were Kings: The Cult of Ali

Foreman & Ali in 'When We Were Kings' | Art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

The sculpture Boxer at Rest, unearthed in Rome in 1885, depicts a man sitting atop a stone, his head turned and looking up at something of which we can only guess. Is he gazing up at a cheering crowd? An approaching opponent? A judge crowning another fighter champion? Plenty of mystery surrounds the piece, the identity of the subject and the artist both unknown. The date of creation, too, is murky, estimates ranging anywhere between the fourth and first centuries B.C.  

What is certain is the man depicted, the boxer, is fresh from a fight. Through startling realism, we see his broken nose, his cauliflower ears. His mouth is open, sucking in air. Scars and bruises tattoo his naked body. Strips of leather, the boxing gloves of his day, bandage the hands. A “transcendent tiredness…oozes out of him,” writes the poet Gabriele Tinti. We do not know whether he is resting after victory or defeat, but from his sweat, blood, and sacrifice, he achieved an immortality reserved for the greatest of heroes. More than two millennia later and the boxer still remains poised and ready for his next fight.

“This is no Hollywood set,” says Drew Bundini Brown, Muhammad Ali’s cornerman, in the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. “This is real.”

The film chronicles the 1974 boxing match famously known as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” in which the undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman faced off against the former champion Ali in Zaire. Both men loom large in our national consciousness, Ali in particular. Much of Ali’s legacy stems from this bout, his victory over Foreman cementing his status as the greatest of all time. But When We Were Kings goes beyond the highlight reel of Ali/Foreman and reveals the struggle and skill it took for Ali to win. Even the existence of the film itself is a small story of perseverance: Director Leon Gast shot his original footage in 1974 with the focus on a music festival occurring in conjunction with the fight. Two decades later, Gast’s footage found its way to filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who crafted it into something more. “Instead of a music film with some fight in it,” Hackford said, “it became a film about the fight and a film about Ali.” Two thousand years ago, the Boxer at Rest sculpture immortalized its subject. In 1974, Muhammad Ali, a master of his fate, immortalized himself; When We Were Kings shows how.

The stakes are set from the very beginning. The opening credits are interspersed with images of a young Ali, of musicians in concert, of protests and arrests. We see images of the police state in Zaire juxtaposed with images from America’s Civil Rights Movement: White officers arresting Black protestors, Klansmen in full regalia parading down a city’s sidewalks. This gives us a context of the times from which Ali emerges victorious, a Black man—an outspoken, opinionated Black man—rising up to claim his rightful throne as heavyweight champion of the world.

 “The way he fused politics and sports,” says Spike Lee in the film, “very few Black athletes had ever talked the way Muhammad Ali talked without fear of something happening to their careers.”

Lee is one of several talking heads that pops up throughout the film in retrospective interviews. These interviews function like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, with Lee and others providing a running commentary on what unfolds on-screen. This commentary frames the film for us, crafting a narrative that might otherwise be lacking if the filmmakers relied strictly on the footage shot. Interestingly enough, no athletes are included in these interviews, nor are retrospective interviews from Ali or Foreman themselves included. Instead, the filmmakers have relied on interviews with creatives and intellectuals, indicating there is more substance to these talking head moments than simply rehashing platitudes about what may be the most famous boxing match in history. Lee, as a Black man, discusses Ali’s meaning to members of their race. Ali biographer Thomas Hauser details the business acumen and character amorality of boxing promoter Don King. Writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton garner the most screen time of these interviews, offering their own impressions of Ali and Foreman from the perspective of their contemporaries. As direct eyewitnesses to the action in Zaire, Mailer, and Plimpton testify to a very important point: Nobody thought Ali could win.

When We Were Kings paints Foreman as a force. A “huge, black force,” Mailer says at one point, reminding us that Ali was the underdog, an idea that gets overshadowed nowadays by Ali’s present reputation as the GOAT. Early on, the filmmakers include footage of Foreman demolishing Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, both fighters to whom Ali previously lost; they crumble under the might of Foreman’s blows. “Hell,” Mailer says, “I think Ali was scared.”

“Scared” is not a word often associated with Muhammad Ali, but When We Were Kings makes clear there is no way Ali could not have been scared. He’d seen what Foreman did to Frazier and Norton. He knew the danger awaiting him in the ring, that “huge, black force” staring him down from the opposite corner.

One key scene shows Foreman in the gym, pounding the heavy bag. His punches are slow but they are deliberate, delivered with maximum effort. Plimpton notes that Foreman’s trainer, holding the bag, would be picked up off his feet by the impact of the blows. Mailer describes Foreman leaving dents in the heavy bag as deep as half a watermelon. We see Foreman in a mid-shot and he is single-minded, focused, as he hammers the bag. For Foreman, his fists do the talking.

Ali, on the other hand, is a different story. His mouth starts early in the film and almost never stops. “We gonna get it on cause we don’t get along!” he shouts. He proclaims, like a prophet, “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ‘til I kick Foreman’s behind!” Ali talks at press conferences, entertaining the reporters like he’s a stand-up comedian. He talks on the airplane, riding in the cockpit and marveling at the all-Black flight crew. In his apartment, he philosophizes on Black culture versus white culture. Ali talks while he’s jogging and he talks while he’s sparring. He is jumping rope and, without missing a beat, says about Foreman, “He’s the bull! I’m the matador!”

Throughout the film, however, we return to the idea that Ali is scared. Mailer has planted that seed in our minds and has given us a new way to see the fight and a new way to see Ali. Even the most casual boxing fan likely knows Ali’s penchant for boasting. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is as popular as any phrase in our national lexicon. What the filmmakers have done here is clue us in to Ali’s justification for the boasting. They’ve asked us to see it less as an act of pride and rather to see it as an act of deflection, a way to minimize impending doom.

When the fight begins, Mailer puts it this way: “Finally the nightmare he’d been awaiting in the ring had finally come to visit him. He was in the ring with a man he could not dominate, who was stronger than him, who was not afraid of him…It was the only time I ever saw fear in Ali’s eyes. Ali looked as if he looked into himself and said, ‘All right, this is the moment. This is what you’ve been waiting for…Do you have the guts?”

For all his talk, the time had come for Ali to put up or shut up.

When Ali’s plane first lands in Zaire, it is in the dark of night. We see Ali greeted by a crowd so large it brings to mind images of Beatlemania. The local Africans fill the tarmac and line rooftops and balconies to catch a glimpse of Ali, all the while chanting his name: “Ali! Ali!” Foreman, though, arrives in the day. While Ali’s crowd contains hundreds, if not thousands, Foreman’s reception might number in the dozens.

Yet another voice in the chorus, actor Malik Bowens, helps us understand why the African people revered Ali and dismissed Foreman. “For us, Foreman represented America,” Bowens says, explaining that until Foreman stepped off the plane, many in the country assumed he was white. Making matters worse for himself, Foreman arrives in Zaire with a pet German shepherd, a dog unleashed on Black people in America and Africa alike.

Keep in mind the times, that the “Rumble in the Jungle” comes only about a year after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. Ali had his title taken because of his refusal to fight in Vietnam. Here is a Black man using his voice to speak out against an unjust war and punished for doing so. Meanwhile, Foreman held an American flag at the 1968 Olympics when other Black athletes were holding their fists. Foreman—as a symbol of America, of colonialism, of oppression—is what Ali must defeat, not just for his own sake but also for the sake of his race. A brief moment reveals Foreman’s sensitivity. Ali’s fans take to chanting, “Ali, bomaye,” meaning, “Ali, kill him.” Foreman tells of children following him down the street chanting the phrase. “I don’t think that’s so nice,” the champion says. “If they have anything to say about me, they could say, ‘George Foreman loves Africa’ or ‘George Foreman loves being here,’ not ‘George Foreman, kill him.’” 

When We Were Kings does not vilify Foreman by painting him as a race traitor. The flag-waving incident at the 1968 Olympics goes unmentioned. In the film, Foreman praises Africa, remarking at a press conference upon his arrival to Zaire that “Africa is the cradle of civilization.” He is shown in his apartment listening to James Brown and Don King sound off on race, on the importance of community and brotherhood and pride. “We left Africa in an aura of shackles, fetters, and chains,” King says. “We’re coming back in an aura of splendor and glory.” Foreman listens to this, taking it in. The difference between Foreman and Ali, though, is that Ali isn’t listening in these conversations. Ali is the conversation. While Foreman remains silent in his apartment, Ali is saying in his, “I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people living on welfare, who can’t eat…I want to win my title and walk down the alleys with the wine-heads, walk with the dope addicts, the prostitutes.”

The film climaxes with the fight. Ali walks to the ring, Foreman jogs. By this point, in 1974, Ali, at 32-years-old, is an old man for boxing, while Foreman, seven years his junior, is in his prime. “Age against youth,” an announcer says, and we can view the fight with this lens. Another way of looking at it: life against death. Howard Cosell, striking a somber note, is shown in the film declaring it would take a miracle for Ali to win. The famed sports broadcaster speculates Ali will retire after losing the fight, that his time in the spotlight has come to an end. Would Ali—as a man, as a boxer, as a celebrity—survive the fate awaiting him at the hands of George Foreman? A defeat might not spell Ali’s literal death—though in boxing there’s always the chance—but a defeat might certainly spell the death of an icon, the death of Ali’s myth. A defeat might reduce Ali to irrelevance. As he walks to the ring, the film has put Ali’s chance of success firmly in doubt.

Here, the filmmakers rely on the official broadcast footage of the fight. However, they add an element that blends the moment with the supernatural. Plimpton, before the fight, relates an African witch doctor’s prediction that a succubus would take hold of George Foreman in the ring. As the “Rumble in the Jungle” plays out, an image of an African woman breathing pantingly into a microphone, her eyes wide and unblinking, bleeds onto the screen. “The succubus has got him!” Plimpton shouts as the fight crescendos. The woman’s breath, rapid on the soundtrack, matches the exhilaration of the moment. Foreman is spent. Ali, however, has come alive, the gasps of this “succubus” echoing Ali’s gasps of life. Ali unleashes his flurry of punches, sending Foreman down to the mat. The fight is over. Ali has won. 

The victory was foreshadowed during an early moment showing Ali’s training at Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. There, Ali leaned on the ropes and allowed his sparring partner to pummel his body. “He was training his body to receive these messages of punishment and absorb them faster than other fighters could absorb them,” Mailer explains. For those watching the fight live, Ali looked helpless when Foreman caught him on the ropes. We, in the present, know the outcome ourselves. However, the filmmakers have crafted their footage in such a way that keeps us in suspense until the final bell. Aside from the prophetic boasting from Ali’s camp, few moments in the film point to his eventual win. Seeing the “rope-a-dope” play out in When We Were Kings, we see it payoff almost like a twist ending, some elaborate con, a strategy long planned before Ali ever stepped foot in the ring.

The film does not indicate the identity of the African woman that appears on-screen during the fight. From the microphone in her hand, we can safely assume she is a performer. If Ali is an artist in the ring, this woman, surely, is an artist on the stage. In fact, the identity of the woman is Miriam Makeba, a Johannesburg native and a successful singer, songwriter, and actress. For several years, Makeba was married to the African-American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, and Makeba herself was an activist in her own right. In her lifetime, she spoke many times before the United Nations about the injustice of apartheid. She found herself exiled for decades from her homeland because of her outspokenness. 

Makeba’s appearance on-screen during the most defining moment of Ali’s career represents far more, however, than the supernatural. In fact, Plimpton’s anecdote about the witch doctor and the succubus is trivial compared to the deeper meaning. Makeba represents Africa. She represents a race of people engaged in a longstanding struggle. Ali, threatened with imprisonment and once exiled from the sport he loved because of his beliefs, is yet another fighter in that struggle. Ali’s image is paired with Makeba’s image. If Makeba stands for Africa, then Ali fights for Africa.

What is undeniable is the awe inspired by Ali’s victory. Plimpton explains that immediately following the fight, monsoon rains poured down over Zaire, yet locals remained outside leaping and shouting in joy with the news of Ali’s win. Ali’s victory is a victory for his race, for his politics, for age over youth, life over death. In the film’s final moments, Spike Lee ranks Ali alongside JFK, Malcolm X, and Jackie Robinson. “No matter what era you live,” Lee says, “you see very few true heroes.”

Philostratus the Elder tells the story of the ancient Greek wrestler Arrichion who, in an Olympic match, finds himself in a stranglehold. He manages to dislocate his opponent’s ankle, leading to his opponent’s submission, yet at the very same moment Arrichion himself loses his life. He sacrifices his body for victory. In recent years, more and more studies have indicated a correlation between head trauma and the onset of various neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s. We, with the power of hindsight, can ask, “Did Ali’s persistence in the ring contribute to the Parkinson’s that afflicted him later in life?” Regardless, for both Ali and Arrichion, Philostratus’ statement applies: “Having won this victory at the cost of his life, he is being conducted to the realms of the blessed…Let not this be regarded as mere chance, since he planned most shrewdly for the victory.”

The ancients deified their heroes. They offered up sacrifices and libations to them. They venerated their bodies. Across ancient Greece, there were thousands of hero cults honoring the strength, bravery, and determination of figures like Arrichion, figures like Ali.

A little over halfway through When We Were Kings, Ali is jogging in the Zairian countryside when he pauses and proceeds to shadowbox with the camera. We, on the other side, see Ali’s punches as he dances with the camera, throws a jab, cross, uppercut. A small handful of locals have gathered about, watching him. All throughout the film, Ali is swarmed by crowds, from the moment his plane first lands in Zaire up until his walk out to the ring in the film’s climax. Here, in this moment in the Zairian countryside, the crowd is smaller, only maybe a dozen standing about.

Still, Ali entertains them. Still, they adore him.

Ali, slightly winded, pumps his arm in the air, leads this small group of fans in a chant.

“Ali, bomaye!”

The locals join in: “Ali, bomaye!”

As Ali shadowboxes the camera, the film cuts to a child, young and skinny and Black, imitating Ali’s boxing stance. One can imagine children all over Africa and America and all over the world imitating that stance. Still today, decades later, a child might imitate that stance, shouting proudly, “I’m the greatest! Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!” Such is the mark Ali left on the world. Such is the cult through which Ali still lives.

After first watching When We Were Kings, George Foreman reportedly said, “’I’ve always looked at Muhammad Ali as an opponent…And after seeing the film, I realized why he was my idol.”

The ancients deified their heroes. 

I suppose we still do.