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Great Upset Documented In ‘When We Were Kings’

Fri., July 11, 1997

George Foreman just didn’t get it.

The Mike Tyson of his day, he was a hulking brute of a man - a heavyweight with size and power enough to knock other fighters, good fighters, through the air as if they were mere puppets.

Like Tyson, he’d survived a rough childhood. Unlike Tyson, he won an Olympic gold medal.

Like Tyson, he laid waste to the heavyweights of his day, mowing through bums such as Cookie Wallace and Charlie Polite and ranked fighters such as Ken Norton and Joe Frazier.

(It was Frazier, in fact, whom Foreman knocked down six times en route to a second-round technical knockout on Jan. 22, 1973 - the same Frazier who battled Ali three times, winning once, in maybe the greatest fight series in history.)

Unlike Tyson, Foreman had real size. In his prime, he stood almost 6-foot-4 and weighed in the neighborhood of 214 pounds.

Being black, being an Olympic champion, being the reigning professional champ and being a genuinely scary presence, Foreman had every right to expect that the residents of Zaire, Africa, would embrace him warmly.

But he miscalculated.

He made the mistake of being himself, a glowering presence who may have attracted respect but didn’t invite easy adoration. He made the mistake of bringing his dogs to Zaire with him, not knowing that German Shepherds - typically the attack tools of colonial police - were seen as a symbol of oppression to the country’s common folk.

Most of all, though, he made the mistake of underestimating his opponent - Muhammad Ali.

As Leon Gast shows in his Oscar-winning documentary feature “When We Were Kings,” which is now available on video (see capsule review below), Ali entered the Foreman fight - known historically as the “Rumble in the Jungle” - as a confirmed underdog. On the downward slope of his career, Ali was given little or no chance against the fearsome Foreman.

Gast quotes two journalistic icons of the day, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, as saying exactly that.

Gast, whose film was held from release for two decades because of rights problems, also shows how Ali benefitted from Foreman’s training injury - a nasty cut on his eyebrow that forced a postponement of the fight for six weeks.

Ali made the most of the added time. He trained hard, thought hard, campaigned hard to win the heart of the Zairian people.

And it worked. Not only did Ali enter the ring with the crowd solidly behind him, but his strategy of holding back - sagging on the ropes and covering up as Foreman punched himself into exhaustion - worked perfectly. He pounced on Foreman in the eighth round and knocked the wheezing slugger to the canvas.

It remains one of the great upsets of all time, outstripping even Evander Holyfield’s 11th-round KO last November of the seemingly once-invincible Tyson.

Gast quotes a Zairian man who explains what happened this way: Ali, he said, “was like a sleeping elephant. You can do whatever you want around a sleeping elephant. But when he wakes up, he tramples everything.”

George Foreman just didn’t get it.

Until an elephant named Ali stepped on his head.

The week’s releases:

When We Were Kings ***-1/2

Two decades after he shot some 250 hours of film before, during and after the 1974 heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, documentary director Leon Gast succeeded both in making his film and bringing it to the big screen. The result, which is a sort of living history that combines contemporary interviews with vintage footage, won Gast a Best Documentary Feature Oscar. With its enduring image of Ali leading the crowd in cheers of “Ali, boom-aye-yay,” the film certainly deserved it. Rated PG

Absolute Power **-1/2

Clint Eastwood stars as a burglar who witnesses a murder and, because the murderer involves the president of the United States (Gene Hackman), he finds government agents on his tail. Clearly, though, they don’t know with whom they’re messing. Eastwood, who also directs, shows some ability to tell a story visually. And he gets some good performances, from Judy Davis as an unscrupulous White House chief of staff, from Scott Glenn as a troubled Secret Service agent and from Ed Harris as a bulldog homicide detective. The only real problems involve a couple of plot holes big enough to hide the federal deficit. Rated R

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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