I am very grateful to my friend and New Europe colleague Andy Carling for many things, but the most recent of these would have to be his recommendation that I sit down and enjoy an evening with Messrs Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Leon Gast, who is the director of the quite extraordinary documentary When We Were Kings (1996).
Truth be told, I am not the biggest fan of boxing – particularly in its modern incarnation, I find it to be little more than a pissing contest between the promoters and their punch-drunk semi-morons who always appear to have the egos to match their pecs.
However, the heavyweight championship match that took place in Zaire in 1974 between then Heavyweight World Champion George Foreman, an utterly formidable fighter, and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali (who, aged 32 at the time, was amazingly ten years Foreman’s senior), and the build-up to the bout, was something else again – and I am ashamed (though, ultimately, glad) to admit that when I at down to watch Gaston’s film, I actually did not know who won the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ all those years ago.
So, what’s the difference between boxing then and now? Simple. Muhammad Ali.
Like most people, I was obviously aware of Ali by reputation, knowing him to have been an incredibly cock-sure, even arrogant fighter, but these terms simply do not do justice to a man who was as witty, genuine and passionate outside the ring as he was balletic inside – Gast’s remarkable assemblage of footage from the time, interspersed with the thoughts of iconic sports commentators and black icons such as James Brown and Spike Lee, combine to create a documentary that is every bit as engrossing and exciting as the very best sports biopics, the only difference here being that the fighting is real.
And, boy oh boy, what a fight. Assuming that there are some uninformed souls out there, I will extend the same favour to you that Andy did to me, ie I’m saying nowt, but will simply leave you with the assurance that you will never again see the likes of the time, place and personalities on display in this film.