At the Rumble in the Jungle — and hanging with Ali

Here was a heavyweight fight for the ages, and I was sitting in the second row. It was 4 a.m. in Kinshasa – timed to suit American television viewers – on October 30, 1974, and the sweat of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali was hitting me directly in the face.

The then-president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Mobutu Sese Seko, had lured the two to Kinshasa to help put his country on the map. It worked. I was a few weeks into a two-year stay in Kinshasa when the famous began to arrive: entertainers like B. B. King and Miriam Makeba, writers like George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer.

And of course the fighters themselves. Ali had beaten Foreman to Zaire, and quickly worked his charm on the people. He got off the plane, bent to kiss the ground, and declared himself “Glad to be in the land of the brother.” By the time Foreman flew in, the waiting crowd was already yelling, “Ali, boma ye!” (“Kill him, Ali!”).

Then a sparring partner cut Foreman above his eye, and the fight was postponed for six weeks. Foreman was reclusive, but Ali often left his villa to go running, and occasionally to hang out at café/bars – even a couple of times with a few of us teachers from the American School of Kinshasa. We’d drink that good Belgian beer (Ali drank Orange Fanta) and talk about things back home. One day, Ali stopped the conversation to complain that the delay was dragging on too long. “To hell with the land of the brother,” he said to us. “Take me back to the land of the MUTHAH!”

The main thing I remember about the fight itself is that what Ali called his rope-a-dope technique meant that he was regularly leaning back over the ropes above us, taking hit after hit. And I remember feeling astonished at how he seemed to surge with strength at the moment he knocked out Foreman, the heavy favorite and the reigning champion.

After the fight we went back to the Intercontinental Hotel, where most of the visiting foreigners had been staying. The postponement  had had everyone fearing for weeks that the outdoor fight would have to be cancelled because of the imminent arrival of the rainy season (rains in Zaire are rains of a different order). But the season had held off – until just after the fight.  As we gathered for the after-party in the Intercontinental’s courtyard, the winds swept in, the palms swayed, and thunder and lightning were loosed.

It was this Intercontinental bar that had been the journalists’ hangout – especially Plimpton’s and Mailer’s.  Over the weeks, I’d had a couple of rounds with Mailer, thumb wrestling and talking about writing. One night, I gave him some pieces I’d written. The next time I saw him, he told me my problem was that I was too “protean.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but he was exactly right. The Rumble in the Jungle was one ineradicable memory in a rich and scattered life.

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