The 1996 Oscar winning documentary When We Were Kings covers the build up and spectacle of the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ – a world heavyweight title boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali held in Zaire in October 1974. The film is generally made up of archive footage in a similar style to Senna which in a similar way makes it a more interesting piece of history to watch.
Whilst boxing is a sport that divides opinion, when Muhammad Ali was at the top of the world, it was never more popular. His charismatic and hugely entertaining persona is on offer throughout and it is impossible not to grin inanely as he rattles off rhyming insults at Foreman and quick fire retorts to reporters’ questions.
The film starts by explaining how the match came about considering Ali, who although popularly remembered as a great heavyweight champion, was never realistically considered to be able to beat Foreman. After being suspended from boxing for more than 3 years for refusing to be drafted into the US Army, Ali spent the next 4 years getting himself into title contention. Having finally reached that point, at the age of 32 he was considered quite the underdog to the younger 1968 Olympic gold medallist Foreman who at that point had a 40-0 win/loss professional record.
The fight itself was set up by the infamous Don King and effectively made him the force in boxing that he has been for the last 40 years. After getting Foreman and Ali to agree to the fight based on a $5 million purse each, he set about getting the money. As it turned out, Zaire, a country with a brutal dictator and who’s inhabitants lived in abject poverty put up the entire purse due to the desire to raise their international profile. Despite what would nowadays been seen to be a terrible idea from a publicity standpoint, the fight was signed and scheduled to take place in the capital Kinshasa in September 1974.
Prior to the fight, Ali and Foreman headed to Zaire to acclimatise and it is from these weeks that much of the footage comes. As luck would have it, in the days leading up to the fight, Foreman sustained a bad enough cut above his eye that the bout was pushed back by six weeks to allow it time to heal. Ali and Foreman remained in Zaire and continued to train which inadvertently allowed for more good footage to be shot.
Very little of Foreman is shown other than at press conferences as Ali hogs the limelight and is permanently in the camera’s face. Whilst his act is arrogant it is never abrasive and the people of Zaire embraced him and made him a huge fan favourite. Despite all the bravado, he was expected to lose and it was generally considered that all of his talk was just a front to a scared fighter who knew the inevitable was just around the corner.
Even those with only a passing interest in boxing would enjoy this as it is as much a character piece as a sports documentary.