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When We Were Kings

Posted by martinteller on March 15, 2015

I don’t have many “brush with fame” stories, but please indulge me while I share one of the few.  I grew up in the neighborhood of Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago (yes, it’s the neighborhood where our President lives, but this isn’t about him).  My first job was when I was in high school, at a little computer shop on the corner of 53rd and Harper.  One day, I think it was a warm afternoon sometime in 1987, a crowd started to gather outside the store.  We all went to the window and saw Muhammad Ali standing on the corner, right in front of our store.  He did some sleight-of-hand tricks, shook some hands, and left.  In my memory, he never spoke a word to anyone but maybe that’s myth-building that happened in my mind over the years.

I knew who Ali was, of course.  You couldn’t be a child of the 1970’s and not be aware of him.  And to some degree I idolized him, not because I knew anything about boxing but just because he was a larger-than-life figure who was everywhere in pop culture.  “Float like a butterly, sting like a bee” was as ubiquitous as “May the force be with you”.  I watched his short-lived cartoon, because kids will watch anything animated on a Saturday morning.  But I never really knew much about him.  I had heard of the 1974 Ali-Foreman bout in Africa, but I couldn’t have told you which country (Zaire) or even who won (I’ll keep this under wraps, although any sports fan surely knows).

I also don’t know much about boxing in general — except what I’ve seen in the movies, of course — but this fight was riveting.  A dramatic, edge-of-your-seat display of cunning strategy and brute force.  But the fight is not the whole story.  Director Leon Gast spends an hour building up to it, covering a lot of ground while still holding everything together beautifully.  Another thing I didn’t know is that the match was packaged with a music festival, including James Brown, B.B. King and The Spinners.  The music is used throughout the film and it’s fantastic (except the terribly hokey title song by Brian McKnight and Diana King).  Perhaps the film’s best sequence is a brilliantly edited montage of Brown performing “Funky Good Time”, intercut with images of the boxers in training, other performers, and the local culture.

The documentary is constructed very nicely, feeding you new information and opinions at a satisfying clip.  Every facet of the event that the film touches upon is interesting, with testimonials from many who were there, including Norman Mailer and George Plimpton.  How the fight came to be in Zaire, the formidable leader Mobutu lacking the smackdown on criminals in the city, Ali’s political leanings and how they made him the local favorite, the training sessions, the trash talk, Don King, the unfortunate six-week delay, the looming threat of rainy season.  And the aftermath, as an aging, addled Ali moves out of the boxing limelight and adjusts his public persona.  He is a true legend.  I stood five feet away from him once.  Rating: Very Good (84)


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