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'When We Were Kings': It's a Knockout

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 28, 1997

No comedian was ever funnier, no fighter ever faster than Muhammad Ali, who is caught at the top of his game in Leon Gast's valentine, "When We Were Kings."

The movie is built around the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. Though the Oscar-nominated documentary captures the fight and the fighters, it also explores Ali's role in reintroducing black Americans to their African culture.

Best of all, it resurrects Ali as bee, butterfly and maker of bons mots. Mind, mouth, muscles, all in accord, move a mile a minute as the 32-year-old prepares to wrest the heavyweight crown from the formidable, 26-year-old titleholder. Fit and fleet as Ali is, conventional wisdom has it that Ali's a dead man.

Ali, as Gast's film repeatedly and delightfully demonstrates, was hardly a conventional soul. He comes through as a maverick's maverick. And he's up against formidable competition in this film, including Don King. It was the ex-con with "the great uprush of hair" who managed to talk Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairian dictator, into staging the fight. Persuaded that it would be good publicity for his country, Mobutu forked over $10 million, flew the fighters and their entourages to Kinshasa and began cleaning the blood of anti-government protesters from the floor of the outdoor arena where the fight was scheduled to take place that September.

Idolized by the people of Zaire for refusing to fight in Vietnam, the older boxer is greeted with chants of "Ali, bomaye!" which means "Ali, kill him!" Foreman, to Ali's great pleasure, was irritated with this turn of events, but Foreman was easily angered in those days. Ali later takes advantage of this weakness to defeat him in the ring. Using a combination of right-hand leads and verbal taunts, Ali tricks Foreman into punching himself out in the early rounds and subsequently flattens his opponent.

As Ali predicted:

"You think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned? Just wait'll I kick George Foreman's behind."

The boxing footage is terrific, but Gast has added archival film of other Ali-Foreman fights. Spike Lee, assorted sports columnists and other camp followers add compelling commentary, but Foreman, who was first devastated, then redeemed by the licking, isn't interviewed. And that's too bad, because it's almost as if Ali hammered something of himself into Foreman, who would go on to become every bit as affable as Ali. And then, Foreman, too, would challenge time.

Watching the picture, it's impossible not to think of Ali today, trembling and unsteady as he is. And you wonder as you stare at the dazzling young athlete: Would he do it all again if he knew the price? His biographer, Thomas Hauser, assures us that he would, that he loves every day of being Muhammad Ali.

Certainly, nobody ever looked as if he was having more fun than Ali does in "When We Were Kings." And the same goes for everybody around him -- except Foreman. Even cynical old sportswriters look like kids on Christmas morning when they recall memories of "Rumble in the Jungle" fever and those special moments they spent with Ali.

Though there were other kings on hand at the time -- Don, B.B., James "the King of Soul" Brown, not to mention Mobutu -- Ali was, in the words of producer David Sonenberg, "on a whole other level, he was King of the World."

When We Were Kings is rated PG for violence in the ring.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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