February 23, 2007
The Greatest turned 65 a few weeks ago. I celebrated by watching When We Were Kings for the dozenth time, joined by a girlfriend half-convinced by my saying that the documentary--about Zaïre's famous "Rumble in the Jungle" of 1974, involving an ageing Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champ George Foreman, and the awe-inducing "rope-a-dope" strategy--was about more than boxing. And it is, even if you hesitate to claim any recondite meaning from the cruellest sport of all.
The fight was made possible by Don King, a then obscure promoter who had done time for stomping a man to death in Cleveland (he had been trialled previously for a separate murder but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence), and while locked-down gorged on a Genet-like diet of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. Released, King applied Machiavelli's logics in the heavy shadows of boxing promotion, until the "Rumble in the Jungle" flighted him to the top of the food-chain. He is still there today, commanding a moribund sport with his uncanny mix of amorality and charm, and even promoting the president--during the 2004 US presidential campaign King travelled the country exhorting the people to vote for his man Bush.
When I consider King's famous catch-phrase "Only in America!" I think of the America that rocketed a two-time killer and drug pusher to vertiginous heights in the boxing world--nay, American public life--and the America which ushered in a born-again ex-alcoholic as its two-term President.
King's and Bush's America is a similar one... and an old one. It is an America which places its trust in possessive individualism, and leaves the intuitive web formed between self-interested peoples to determine society; it is an America which believes in a self-generating order where ambition and piety absolve aggression. Well, that's one America, and it's served both of these gentlemen successfully. Those words "Only in America!" join the two like a lightning rod welding sheets of metal, and so the strange sight of King and the GOP isn't really that odd, after all....
There were, of course, other characters in Zaïre: Ali and Foreman, plus their respective entourages: a mix of doctors, trainers, sparring partners, friends. There were Big Authors (George Plimpton and Norman Mailer were both there, and feature in this documentary as talking heads), and the press. There were organisers and soldiers, but, despite King's lofty promises, next to no American fight tourists. There were black entertainers: BB King and a James Brown spanned by sinewy, sexy dancers. And there was the country itself: Zaïre, formerly the Congo, and controlled by President Mobutu. Here is a hint of the man who filled the vacuum left by the Belgians in 1960, courtesy of a story heard by Mailer from a dinner guest, a "most intelligent American living in Kinshasa". The (partial) description concerns Mobutu's dark use of the stadium scheduled to accommodate the fight:
"Late last spring, the crime wave grew so intense that thieves were posing as policemen. The wives of Americans were getting raped. A nightmare for Mobutu if foreigners should arrive for the fight and get mugged en masse. So his police round up in a hurry three hundred of the worst criminals they can find and lock them in some holding rooms under the stadium. Then fifty of the three hundred were killed. Right there on the stone floor under the stadium. For all we know, some of them could have been shot in the dressing rooms of the fighters. The key to the execution was that it took place at random... No one said, 'Kill this particular fifty.' No... the random destruction was more desirable. Fear among the criminal population would go deeper. Good connections with police are worthless in such an unstructured situation. For much the same reason the other two hundred and fifty criminals were let go. So they would tell their friends of the massacre. The crime rate for this brief period is down. Mobutism. Mayor, tycoon and tyrant all at once."
Welcome to Africa.
While Ali attempted to mobilise Zaïre, to engender respect and sympathy in its peoples, Foreman worked hard, and one of the documentary's most impressive scenes is of the champ working the heavy bag. A heavy bag, punched impressively once or twice, by you or I, would not only fail to leave any impression, but could, if you were without the support of bandaging, dislodge a knuckle or two. In this one scene, we see Foreman, working out in the same gym as Ali, pounding the heavy bag during a fifteen minute session. Left-right-left-right-left-right, creating a devastating momentum which lifts and sways his trainer, desperately trying to hold on to the other side. Every time I watch this I'm reminded of a large wooden battering ram--the same power derived from the same efficient arc.
After the session the bag records a dent the size of a child's head, and Mailer cites the scene as one of the more prodigious things he has ever seen. Meanwhile, in Ali's camp, and amongst the press, there were some that thought that Ali, the rank underdog, could actually die out there. It is not difficult to imagine why. Foreman was a freak.
Ali's proclaimed strategy for the fight was simple: he was gonna dance. During the weeks before the fight, Ali would boast about his speed and delight the press by performing animated mummy impressions. It was Ali's caricature of Foreman: myopic, slow, dumb. But Foreman was no longer that simple or stupid a boxer, and most members of the press, while entertained by Ali's histrionics, weren't fooled: Ali was gonna get whupped.
Of course, Ali never did dance. He probably never intended to. Instead, he went to the ropes, a place you never want to be, and not against one of the hardest hitting boxers in history. But Ali went there. He had a plan. A stupefying and sickening plan. He was going to let himself get hit. And hit. And hit. Protecting his stomach with his elbows, his ribs with his forearms, and his face with his fists, Ali lay back on the ropes, and allowed an imperfect defence to be frequently broken by Foreman's battering rams. Incredibly, Ali egged him on: "Is that all you got, George? That ain't hard. I thought you was the champion, I thought you had punches".
Before the fight Ali had been training himself to take punches. His sparring partner (and later heavy weight champ himself) Larry Holmes would brutally condition Ali, as so he could withstand future onslaughts. His stomach muscles needed to be strong enough to protect the organs, and the spine behind it.
Of course, the rest is history. Ali had psyched Foreman, and suffered the great pains that went with executing his strategy. In the eighth round Foreman had completely punched himself out, and Ali sprung off the ropes, and landed a succession of head blows. Foreman went down. Ali was champ again. Joyce Carol Oates commented later: "I pondered what sly lessons of masochism Mailer absorbed from being ringside that day, what deep-imprinted resolve to outwear all adversaries".
Ali was a much different boxer in his early days, and there was a beautiful and brutal aesthetic to the way he fought. Ali was so good, and so different, that he rendered the artistry of boxing axiomatic.
Ali (or as Cassius Clay) would fight with his gloves lowered--much different to the "peek-a-boo" style of, say, a young Mike Tyson--and so his defence was dance, and a near-preternatural capacity to evade hostile fists. Ali would float around the ring, issuing lightning fast jabs, and, when he needed to, would lean sideways, backwards even, to avoid punches to the head. His evasions, when slowed, pay a remarkable similarity to the bullet evasion scenes in the first Matrix film. Try it.
Or don't. The glamorisation of Ali is problematic, as are referrals to art, for it is that same glamorisation which helped keep Ali in the ring, prone to those sub-concussive blows that would later start the neural rot. The writer Garry Wills, once interested in the sport, is now repulsed, and his more recent writings on Ali stress a certain guilt he feels about celebrating the artistry that would later cripple the man:
This most articulate of men, who trained his young body as a holy thing, now lives inarticulate in the wreckage of that superb body, undone by the very skills it acquired...
When I met Ali after his decay had set in, I was so disturbed that I decided never to watch a boxing match again. I have kept that pledge, not even going to see When We Were Kings when my friends raved about it.
Ali's is a tragedy, yes, and certainly his mythology, fed by us, fed his megalomania. Certainly Ali fought too long, a protraction helped by glamour, but also by the questionable motives of promoters (and yes, Don King rears his ugly head here). But be just as certain about this: Ali has never remarked with bitterness, not publicly at least, about his affliction. Ali has said that "boxing was just to introduce me to the world" and that without it he would be a "house painter still in Louisville". As Joyce Carol Oates once wrote about Ali: "who is to presume to feel sorry for one who will not feel sorry for himself?"
Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 4:13 PM