More than two decades ago, one of the finest boxing documentaries ever made was finally released. The Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings details Muhammad Ali’s 1974 fight with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in which Ali regained the heavyweight title stripped from him because of his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. Bolstered by compelling interviews, the film introduces us to a plethora of memorable characters who highlight the event’s cultural importance. The actual fight, however, is never an afterthought, and Ali’s beautifully orchestrated eighth round knockout of Foreman provides an excellent climax to a slick film. It is a decidedly glowing remembrance of the force Muhammad Ali had been, but this subjectivity aside, When We Were Kings will forever be magnificent documentary art.
The film provides the historical context of Ali vs Foreman through footage of the violence which accompanied the transition of the Belgian Congo to the newly named ‘Zaire’. This shift resulted in the rise of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who helped bring Ali and Foreman to Kinshasa by promising each fighter five million dollars. Racial politics permeated the entire spectacle and were seized upon eagerly by Ali. The Muslim challenger positioned himself as the true African in contrast to the presumably more Americanized Foreman, who did himself no favors by attending his first press conference in Zaire accompanied by a German Sheppard, the same breed which the Belgians used as police dogs. In addition to the Ali-Foreman confrontation, a major music festival featuring leading African-American musicians like James Brown and B.B. King was held to coincide with the fight. This added further cultural weight to an event that was, as Ali says with his characteristic grandiosity, “the first assembly of the American black man in Africa in the history of the world.”
Ali, unsurprisingly, emerges as the documentary’s star. We get a sanitized version of ‘The Greatest” in When We Were Kings, which at times borders on hagiography. His charisma and clever word play is overwhelming, and contrasts sharply with the dour Foreman, whose intimidating reserve is substantiated by footage of his incredible destruction of Joe Frazier. A clear favorite leading up to the fight, Foreman’s punching power was awesome, and there’s a memorable scene in When We Were Kings in which he pounds the heavy bag so hard that he creates a turkey-sized dent in it.
Ali’s training sessions, conversely, are equally intense but more lighthearted; he spars with a young Larry Holmes and then rhymes and preens for his audiences, promising to destroy Foreman, whose allegedly stiff fighting style Ali likens to a mummy. Once in Africa, he quickly endears himself to the local populace who create their own chant for him, “Ali boyame,” which means “Ali kill him!” Interestingly, Foreman expresses displeasure with the phrase, ostensibly because of its violent message. This is probably the most poignant personal insight we receive of him in the entire documentary.
Also fascinating are the scenes with a newly emergent Don King. A verbal wizard who alternatively quotes Shakespeare and speaks, with probable insincerity, of his desire to use the fight’s proceeds for philanthropy, King shows off the charisma and cunning that would enable him to conquer the chaotic world of boxing promotion. Ali biographer Thomas Hauser says that while he has met few smarter or harder working people, King is “totally amoral, and I can’t think of a man who’s done more to demoralize fighters, exploit fighters, and ruin fighter’s careers than Don King. But you have to give him his due for what he did to make Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman in Zaire.”
The fight itself, delayed by weeks because of a cut Foreman sustained in training, was held in a huge, open air stadium very late in the night in order to accommodate the American television audience. Prior to the bout, Ali’s room was likened to a morgue because of the pervasive feeling amongst his handlers that he was about to receive a beating. The Greatest, of course, felt otherwise, and he gamely trades power punches with Foreman in the first round. It is the transition between the first round and the second however, that encapsulates Ali’s greatness. We see him standing in his corner, staring across the ring at the man who, as Mailer bombastically says, “was stronger than him, who was not afraid of him…[and] who was determined and unstoppable.” Ali’s look is one of unmistakable concern, as though he knows that if he is to win he must summon within himself reservoirs of strength he’s never had to call upon.
Summon them he does. Ali masterfully outwits and outfights Foreman, neutralizing the champion’s vaunted punching power and landing his own precise shots. The Texan’s reckoning comes in the eighth round, with Ali fittingly coming off the ropes, hammering Foreman with a series of blows and a final right hand that sends the champion to the canvas. Stunned and completely worn out, Foreman is finished. The crowd goes into a frenzy as the ref counts him out and a triumphant Ali raises his hands before being mobbed by his corner.
What resonates most in the presentation of the fight is Ali’s indomitable will and superior intellect. Facing the greatest physical threat of his career, he operates with the strategic acumen of a chess master. Whether it remains his greatest victory is a matter of debate, but the story’s narration in When We Were Kings is stylistically brilliant and the film serves, particularly for a younger audience, as an important testament to the audacious and extraordinarily charismatic person Ali was before his voice was robbed by Parkinson’s. The film is not objective in its representation of Ali, but it’s as sharp and graceful as the style “The Greatest” employed to defeat George Foreman.