Fear And Loathing In Zaire

Hunter S. Thompson is undoubtedly an icon of the “counter-culture” movement. He was also a miserable failure as a boxing writer. A motorcycle-racing, gun-loving, Nixon-hating, booze-swilling, narcotic-ingesting poster boy for antihero reportage, Thompson had established himself as a leading journalist and a major figure when Rolling Stone magazine asked him to get on a plane bound for Zaire to cover the classic heavyweight title match between challenger Muhammad Ali and champion George Foreman. But things did not go as planned.

On the surface at least, it made sense: send your big name writer to cover “The Rumble in the Jungle,” the title fight that would prove to be one of the most memorable and momentous contests in the history of professional sports. Yet Thompson never got his story in. Unbelievably enough, he wouldn’t even see the fight.

This no doubt came as a headache to his employers. Sending a writer to another continent to cover a major sporting event costs money and Rolling Stone clearly didn’t get any return on its investment. Why, though? It was clear at the time that Thompson admired Ali. In his famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he lamented Ali’s loss to Joe Frazier in 1971. “Frazier,” he wrote, “had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand – at least not out loud.” One would think the chance to see Ali win back the world title and redeem his struggle against the U.S. government would be impossible for an admirer of “The Greatest” to resist. What happened?

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter with gun.

Ralph Steadman, the visual artist associated with much of Thompson’s work, had accompanied Hunter to Zaire but in 2018 he told Newsweek that “Thompson really didn’t want to watch a couple of guys fighting.” According to Steadman, Thompson was there only “for the job” and that he was “really insulting about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.” Rather than taking the assignment seriously, Hunter apparently saw the journey to Zaire as a chance to take a holiday and indulge himself. “All he wanted to do,” said Steadman, “was swim or sleep or take drugs.” Things went from bad to worse for Steadman when he learned Thompson had scalped their fight tickets.

“If you think I’m gonna watch a couple guys beat the shit out of each other,” Steadman quotes Thompson as saying, “you got another thing coming.”

hunter s. Thompson
Portrait of Thompson by Steadman.

And so, Thompson spent the time when he should have been covering “The Rumble In The Jungle” in the swimming pool of Kinshasa’s Inter-Continental Hotel, while poor Steadman was left to watch the fight from his hotel room. As George Plimpton later told it in his book Shadow Box, he paid Thompson a visit the day after Ali’s big win and when asked about the fight, Hunter replied:

“What fight? Oh, I didn’t go to the fight. I stayed in the hotel swimming pool. I lay on my back looking at the moon coming up and the only person in the hotel came and stared at me a long time before he went away. Maybe he thought I was a corpse. I floated there naked. I’d thrown a pound and a half of marijuana into the pool—it was what I had left and I am not trying to smuggle it out of this country—and it stuck together there in a sort of clot, and then it began to spread out in a green slick. It was very luxurious floating naked in that stuff, though it’s not the best way to obtain a high.”

Yet the story of Thompson’s irresponsible behavior didn’t end there.

Thompson and Steadman.

Writing for The Village Voice, English author Jon Bradshaw recorded that he met Thompson and Steadman two days later in London, where Thompson still felt he needed to get some kind of story done about the fight. He apparently never got to writing it though, opting instead for antisocial antics. Bradshaw even recounted Thompson sexually intimidating a young woman in her apartment, with Steadman allegedly telling Bradshaw that Hunter had been accused of trying to rape a London maid the night before. Disturbing stuff, to say the least.

But if Thompson is not well known for sexual deviance, he was certainly known for intoxicated antics and otherwise peculiar endeavors. In fact, as the founder of what’s known as “Gonzo Journalism,” Thompson made his writing all about himself; the people and places that were supposedly his subjects became mere backdrops. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Thompson never got to writing about “The Rumble in the Jungle”; there was simply no way he could outshine the story’s subject, Muhammad Ali.

Ali upsets Foreman: how could Thompson ever turn this into a mere backdrop?

Thompson was for certain a counter-culture icon, but, as Larry Holmes might have put it, he couldn’t hold Muhammad Ali’s jockstrap as far as true influence went. Ali, whatever his shortcomings, struggled to be the best at what he did, whereas Thompson often wanted to present himself at his worst. And while bad behaviour may sell, it looks small and petty compared to a happening like Ali vs Foreman where “The Greatest” defied the odds and, to the delight of millions, won back the heavyweight crown.

Don’t look for Thompson in the press section.

Thompson would continue to write for Rolling Stone and publish books and be famous after the events in 1974, but the drugs, booze and antisocial activities would eventually take their toll. In 2005 the famed journalist took his own life with a bullet. Although he was a remarkable journalist – and, make no mistake, Thompson was one hell of a writer – the man is today remembered mainly for his notorious exploits. As for Ali, the legendary, three-time world champ certainly wasn’t a saint, but, unlike Thompson, when he died in 2016 the world remembered him as a hero – a flawed hero, to be sure – but a hero, nonetheless. Discipline, focus and honoring one’s commitments have a way, it seems, of defining a person, as does a lack thereof.           — Sean Crose 

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