Remembering Muhammad Ali - The Rumble in the Jungle
June 3rd, 2016, marked the one year anniversary of the passing of Muhammad Ali. Recognized around the world as one of the most significant figures of the 20th Century and quite possibly, the most recognized athlete in the world. His 1974 heavyweight title fight in Kinshasa Zaire with George Foreman known as the “Rumble in Jungle,” was broadcast (TV/Radio) to a global audience of 1 billion people, making it the largest sporting event in history. There were, however, a few controversial events and nuances leading up to the fight, most notably:
THE IDI AMIN FACTOR
The assembled fight crowd of 60,000 at the May 20th Stadium in Kinshasa was so large and unpredictable, President Mobutu Sese Seko feared opposition forces might use the occasion of the Muhammad Ali fight to stage a military coup to overthrow this government. Given this risk, Mobutu himself decided NOT to attend the Ali-Foreman fight in person. Rather, he chose to watch the fight at the Presidential palace that evening with his house guest, who happened to be Idi Amin, the President of Uganda. Amin himself was the former light heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda from 1951-1960, and a student of the fight game, both literally and figuratively.
ALI BECAME A POLYGAMIST IN ZAIRE
While training for the fight at the Zairian Presidential retreat in the village of Nsele, about 40 km outside of Kinshasa, Ali married 18-year-old poster girl Veronica Porche in a secret (and private) ceremony in Ali’s villa. At the time, Ali was married to Khalilah Camacho-Ali, who was staying in a local hotel in Kinshasa, away from Ali so the boxer could focus on preparation for the fight. Technically, Ali could have been arrested on his return to the US since Polygamy is illegal in America, but the ceremony was recognized locally in Zaire, and very few knew about it back in the US. Ali would eventually divorce Camacho-Ali in 1977, and married Porche at a not so private ceremony in Los Angeles that same year.
PRESIDENT MOBUTU SEIZED GEORGE FOREMAN’S PASSPORT
On September 15, 1974, barely 10 days before the fight, George Foreman suffered a deep gash above his right eye during sparring, putting the fight at risk of cancellation. Foreman, who hated being in Zaire in the first place and had previously threatened to pull out of the fight due to a pay dispute, wanted to return home to Houston for treatment and rehabilitation, as the fight would now have to be postponed and rescheduled.
President Mobutu, whose government, along with global banking powerhouse Credit Lyonnais of France, had already invested north of $20 million into the project, feared that if Foreman were to get back to the US, he wouldn’t return to the Zaire for the fight. He ordered his soldiers and police to seize Foreman’s passport and travel related documents, effectively making him a hostage in Zaire, unable to leave the country. The fight was eventually pushed back 5 weeks to October 30th, giving Foreman a chance to make a complete recovery. Had the fight been moved from Kinshasa, Zaire, the two proposed alternatives were the Houston Astrodome or the Los Angeles Colosseum.
ALI BROKE THE GLASS CEILING ON ATHLETES' SALARIES
The Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman fight ushered in the era of globalization in big time professional sports. Both fighters were guaranteed a purse of $5 million each, which was more than double what any fighter had previously gotten. To put in perspective, the highest paid baseball player in 1974, Dick Allen, made $250,000 per season, and the highest paid football player that year, Joe Namath, made approximately $400,000 – for the entire season. With Ali commanding $5 million for less than one hour of work, it calcified the Heavyweight Boxing Championship as the most VALUABLE prize in all of sports.
REMEMBERING MUHAMMAD ALI
Muhammad Ali’s legacy is being remembered around the world in different ways, with his hometown of Louisville Kentucky kicking off a six-week celebration themed, “I am Ali.” The Rumble in the Jungle stands out to me, primarily for what it did to show case Africa’s ability to host a major event in sports, the arts or entertainment. Only the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games’ and the FIFA World Cup Final match in soccer, have ever commanded a larger share of global viewership than Muhammad Ali’s fight with Georgie Foreman on a late October evening in the heart of Africa. Muhammad Ali mattered to sports, Muhammad Ali mattered to Africa.
Rest in Peace Champ. Africa loves you, America misses you and the World will never forget you.