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'When We Were Kings': Crowning Achievement

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 28, 1997

When Muhammad Ali kissed his honorary gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics, his body trembling with Parkinsonís syndrome, the ceremony brought grim closure to one chapter of his life. In 1960, the young boxer returned triumphantly from Rome to his Kentucky hometown, a boxing gold medal draped triumphantly around his neck. But, while still wearing the medal, he was refused service at a Louisville diner. Ali -- who was still named Cassius Clay at the time -- threw his medal into the Ohio river.

As Leon Gastís eloquent, entertaining "When We Were Kings" makes clear, Aliís battles were always about more than boxing. This documentary about Aliís historic fight with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 shows us what that painful Atlanta ceremony could not: a champion with grace, charm, an oversized ego, formidable fighting skills, a cheekily inspired sense of poetry, political savviness, religious conviction and defiantly independent opinions.

For those who want to relive Aliís glory days, and for those who think Ali was nothing but a prizefighter, this movie, which took the struggling Gast 20 years to get financed, is required viewing.

The two fighters arrived in the African country for the fight of the century and a combined purse of $10 million. For Ali, beating Foreman (the reigning champion) would cap a laborious comeback. A former champ himself, heíd been stripped of his title for refusing military service. Heíd also been forced into retirement. But after beating the draft-evasion conviction, as well as heavy-hitters Joe Frazier and Ken Norton (both after rematches), he was back for glory.

But on the eve of the fight, Foreman sustained a gash over one eye. The fight was postponed for six weeks. Zairian president Mobuto Sese Seko forbade anyone to leave the country. The boxers, the press and the world waited. While they waited, director Gast followed the fighters around. Foreman, a quiet, imposing man, was serious and laconic. But Ali was a one-man public relations campaign. Heíd lead adulatory African crowds to chant, "Ali bomaye!" (which means: "Ali, kill him!"). And at a time when "rap" simply meant "knock," Ali was a master of the rhyming insult.

To sportscaster Howard Cosell, who doubted Aliís chances, the boxer retorted "Howard, Iím gonna tell everyone your hair is a phony. It came from the tail of a pony."

"You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned?" came another Ali-ism. "Just wait till I kick Foremanís behind."

But as "Kings" makes clear, Ali was more than an insult artist. The jive was punctuated with astute, meaningful rhetoric. He never failed to describe the bigger picture to the throng of sportswriters, camera people and Zairians following him around. This fight was part of an ambitious festival (including musical entertainment from James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba and other major acts) and was, he pointed out, about empowerment. African Americans had left Africa as slaves, he said. Now they were returning as champions.

Even though this bout is 23 years old -- and even if you know its outcome -- itís still a nail biter. In present-day interviews (conducted by director Taylor Hackford), such writers as George Plimpton and Norman Mailer (both of whom covered the fight as sportswriters) recall their memories of the Ali-dubbed "Rumble in the Jungle." Weíre made to understand the odds facing Ali. Compared to the 32-year-old Ali, the 26-year-old Foreman seemed enormous. In fact, next to Foreman, even Mike Tyson looks small. Foreman had dumped Frazier in the second round. He had smacked Norton down, also after two rounds. The only thing Ali had over Foreman -- even his strongest fans privately believed -- was that big mouth.

By the time the fighters enter that ring, the excitement factor is almost uncontrollable.

This movie is a metaphor for any of us who lament the passing of time, who remember when we were younger, quicker and more alert. Ali was magic; he was lightning in gloves. He was the best and the brightest. "Kings" proves it. Which brings us back to that moving Atlanta ceremony. Pity and poignancy arenít the emotions you should feel for Ali. It should be outrage. For Ali to be reduced to cruising speed is a cosmic cruelty. Yet, as he squares in the ring with Parkinsonís syndrome for the biggest and longest fight of his life, youíve still got to like his chances.

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (PG) ó Contains boxing violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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