June 13, 1997 in Seven

Film Tells Intriguing Story Of Ali-Foreman Bout

By The Spokesman-Review
 

One of the most overlooked ingredients of greatness is luck.

What would have been, say, the fate of the 1972 Oakland Raiders if Pittsburgh Steeler running back Franco Harris had not been in exactly the right position to make his immaculate touchdown reception of Terry Bradshaw’s wayward pass?

Where might Mary Decker have ended up in the 1984 Olympics had Zola Budd not stepped on her heel?

And what would Muhammad Ali’s place in boxing history be if George Foreman had not cut his eye in training, thus postponing their 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” for six long weeks?

Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary “When We Were Kings” offers a theory: Ali would have been whipped, leaving Foreman to continue his fearful march through the ranks of that era’s heavyweight fighters.

This is not so much evident from anything Gast or anyone else in the film has to say as it is from the attitudes that the respective fighters convey before the injury, during Foreman’s recovery period and in the days and hours leading up to the momentous championship fight - which, as history tells us, ended up with Ali winning by a wildly improbable eighth-round knockout.

Based on more than 250 hours of footage, which Gast shot during his extended stay in Zaire (now the Republic of the Congo), “When We Were Kings” is a testament to what made Ali one of the greatest, if not the greatest, boxing champion in history.

Overall, it is a loving look at the one-time skinny kid from Louisville who was born Cassius Clay. That man, after whipping the fierce presence known as Sonny Liston, was admired for his speed, incredible in such a big man, and yet reviled by many for his arrogance (even if it was justified).

Yet that was only the beginning. After taking his Muslim name and refusing - by reason of conscientious objection - induction into the Army, he earned America’s true enmity. Banned for more than three years from the sport that he virtually reinvented, he re-emerged determined to once again to assert himself atop the heavyweight ranks.

But Foreman stood in the way. As different from today’s gregarious character as Glinda the Good is from the Wicked Witch of the West, the Foreman of 1974 was a wrecking machine.

A glowering presence, he could split heavy bags with the force of his blows.

More to the point, two fighters that gave Ali all he could handle - Joe Frazier and Ken Norton - were destroyed by Foreman.

If Ali had any chance at all of winning, psychology was the key. Plus luck. And Ali made the most of both.

For after Foreman hurt himself, and the fight was put off until he could heal, Ali used every moment to gain strength, to win over the Zaire people (already predisposed to love him) and to devise the rope-a-dope strategy that ultimately would be Foreman’s undoing.

Gast combines contemporary interviews with the likes of Norman Mailer and George Plimpton (both of whom were at the fight and both of whom were convinced that Foreman was going to win big) with his vintage footage to give both an immediate feel of the time and the necessary overview. The result is a kind of living history that seems to be the province of the very best documentaries.

That history includes such figures as James Brown, B.B. King, Foreman and his pet German shepherds (that even further alienated him from all of Zaire), the early Don King, the now-deposed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and the many citizens of Mobutu’s ravaged country who adopted Ali as one of their own.

Gast’s film, which was tied up through financial and legal problems for all these years, received a big boost when the filmmaker partnered up with producer David Sonenberg and director Taylor Hackford.

It was Hackford who helped Gast to edit his film into the trim 87 minutes that culminates with an enduring image: of Ali leading the crowd in a chant of “Ali, boom-aye-yay.”

Which translates to “Ali, kill him.”

With a little luck and a lot of skill, he did just that.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “When We Were Kings” Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Leon Gast, featuring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King, James Brown, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Don King Running time: 1:27 Rating: PG

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “When We Were Kings:” Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: To watch “When We Were Kings” is to bask in the unadulterated greatness of Ali at his prime. Perhaps not physically, but certainly when his lightning wit connected with his agile mouth faster than any flurry of punches he’s ever thrown. Frank Scheck/The Hollywood Reporter: The single misstep is the excessive footage of the various musical performers who took part in the bout, including James Brown and B.B. King. Ted Anthony/AP: Leon Gast’s film - winning an Academy Award - is, like most superior movies about sports, not about sports at all.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “When We Were Kings” Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Leon Gast, featuring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King, James Brown, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Don King Running time: 1:27 Rating: PG

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “When We Were Kings:” Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: To watch “When We Were Kings” is to bask in the unadulterated greatness of Ali at his prime. Perhaps not physically, but certainly when his lightning wit connected with his agile mouth faster than any flurry of punches he’s ever thrown. Frank Scheck/The Hollywood Reporter: The single misstep is the excessive footage of the various musical performers who took part in the bout, including James Brown and B.B. King. Ted Anthony/AP: Leon Gast’s film - winning an Academy Award - is, like most superior movies about sports, not about sports at all.


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