Ken Burns has given us epic documentaries on the Civil War, Vietnam, and the fighter Jack Johnson. Now he turns his attention to a subject that draws upon all those histories, with Muhammad Ali, a new documentary (with Sarah Burns and David McMahon) that will air on September 19. Ali would turn have turned 80 on January 17, 2022, but there is another Ali-versary—the epic battle in Zaire on October 30, 1974, between Ali and George Foreman in what has long been called the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Unlike other artists, a great boxer has a brief time in which to paint his harsh masterpieces. For Ali, 32 years old at the time, Zaire was one of them.
“I have had lizards in my shower, slept in a tiny village where elephants walk the single dusty street at night, watched beetles fight to the death, and seen the crocodiles who live in the River Zaire, which flows outside my villa…. And now, because it seems to be required of all sportswriters, I must judge who will win. It’s a silly tradition, but one rigorously followed. I will try the best I can.”
So wrote the Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Jack Griffin in a dispatch 10 days before the prizefight in Kinshasa, Zaire, where Ali would stun the world by wresting the heavyweight championship from the undefeated strongman Foreman, knocking him out in the eighth round, thus becoming only the second man in boxing history to regain the title.
There have always been writers at ringside—James Baldwin sitting between Norman Mailer and Ben Hecht in Chicago, in 1962, when Sonny Liston took the championship away from Floyd Patterson. Gay Talese, then of The New York Times, was also there that night, as were Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Budd Schulberg. Seventeen months later, on February 25, 1964, Liston would surrender his heavyweight crown to 22-year-old Cassius Clay.
Eight days later, accompanied by Malcolm X, Clay announced his new name to the world: Muhammad Ali. It was by that name—one of the most common in the Muslim world—that he would arguably become the most recognized, controversial, and beloved human on the planet.
Ali has been gone for just over five years now, though silenced long before that by the Parkinson’s that brought about his death at 74. During his lifetime, he showed us there are no neutral corners. One should take a stand on the great issues of the day—war and peace, inequality and injustice. His great gifts as both prizefighter and showman made him a citizen of the world, though he was vilified and punished for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
That was the greatest test of his character. But no physical challenge was as daunting as the Rumble in the Jungle, some 47 years ago.
Zaire would also prove to be a watershed moment for the handful of American writers who accompanied Ali to Africa. Many of them identified with Ali’s comeback. Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and even George Plimpton were thought by some to have passed their prime as writers. They were invested in Ali’s triumph—or possible defeat. Neither Ali nor the writers who left Zaire after the historic fight would ever be the same. This is their story.
More than a Fight
It was more than just a prizefight. Though opinion was fiercely divided, only a few years earlier Ali had been one of the most hated men in America. Having been stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing induction into the army, he had faced prison time and had his boxing license revoked for three and a half years. Despite a record of 61 fights in which he’d lost only 5 and won 37 by knockout, Ali had nothing more to lose and the whole world to gain.
It was also the first heavyweight championship bout ever held on the African continent, set up by Don King (who would establish his reputation as a big-gate promoter of fights and fighters), along with a British consortium of backers and President Mobutu Sese Seko, the cool, cruel, newly empowered dictator of Zaire in the first flush of that nation’s independence from the Belgians. Mobutu wanted to advertise his country, the success of the revolution, and himself. He wanted to put Zaire on the map, wiping out all traces of its colonial past. The Belgian Congo had become Zaire. (It’s now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)
The fight was held in a soccer stadium originally built for an Olympics that would never come: Stade du 20 Mai. Some 60,000 people thronged there at four o’clock in the morning so the bout could be shown on closed-circuit TV at prime time in the West. Each fighter was promised $5 million, and it was advertised as Mobutu’s “gift to the people of Zaire.”
It was also a gift to the slew of American and international sportswriters who flocked to Kinshasa to cover the biggest event in boxing history, among them Jerry Izenberg, of the Newark Star-Ledger; Dave Anderson, of The New York Times; Vic Ziegel, of the New York Post; Dick Young, of the New York Daily News; Jack Griffin, of the Chicago Sun-Times; Newsday’s Bob Waters; freelance writer and publicist Harold Conrad; and Larry Merchant, of the New York Post. (Merchant would ultimately be barred for writing unflattering things about Mobutu’s Zaire, and had to cover the fight from New York’s Madison Square Garden, where it was shown on closed-circuit TV.) A rising young writer, Antigua-born Jamaica Kincaid (who would later win praise for her fiction and memoirs), attended a simulcast at the Victoria Theater in Harlem and filed a story for The Village Voice (“The Triumph of Bad and Cool”). “Black boys are bad. They are bad and they are cool,” Kincaid wrote. “Last week Muhammad Ali did a few things to show that he was the baddest and the coolest.... He became the only authentic, living hero on the face of this planet.”
For the writers, this fight would be the defining sporting event of their careers. Most picked the formidable Foreman to win, predicting an early knockout victory for the Texas-born 25-year-old with a string of 40 wins and no losses, including 37 wins by knockout.
Added to the hard-core sportswriters were what you might call the celebrity writers, the marquee names of the New Journalism, writing for magazines and for books and for themselves, out of their love of the sport and their fascination with Ali and their need to be where the action was: Bill Cardoso, Mailer, Plimpton, and the most outrageous New Journalist of them all, Hunter S. Thompson. Budd Schulberg—sportswriter, screenwriter of On the Waterfront, author of the great boxing novel that became the Humphrey Bogart film The Harder They Fall—was there, too, with a foot in both the Ali and Foreman camps.
The big event was originally scheduled for September 25, but eight days before the fight, Foreman got cut in a sparring session. A number of the sportswriters returned to the States for the five-week postponement, but some stayed on in Zaire.
Like Stepping into Heart of Darkness
For those who stayed, as Plimpton observed, it was as though they had stepped into Joseph Conrad’s unsettling novella Heart of Darkness. In addition to the unrelenting heat, there was the boredom of waiting. To pass the time, the sportswriters bet on everything—cockroach and lizard contests, and even the hyacinths sliding down the river as if it were a horse race at Hialeah. (“No, that one’s my hyacinth!”) Thompson became obsessed with the idea that the Nazi war criminal Martin Bormann was hiding in Brazzaville, across the river, and wanted to rent a plane to go flush him out.
Thompson was still more of a cult figure then, with little national reputation, and he was at a low point in his life. His first marriage was breaking up. A few nights before leaving for Zaire, he’d made a fool of himself in front of a large audience at Duke University, having smoked hashish at the airport and downed too much Wild Turkey before his talk.
Plimpton and Thompson had flown to Zaire together, but once they arrived, Plimpton saw little of the gonzo writer. “He never turned up at the press conferences or the sparring sessions,” Plimpton wrote, though he saw him often in the Intercontinental Hotel bar, sitting under a thatched roof, drinking planter’s punch—the perfect libation, Thompson believed, for the former Belgian Congo. “But he has always seemed very busy—mysterious missions, looking this way and that through his big aviator glasses as he rushed through the lobby,” Plimpton wrote.
In fact, Thompson didn’t seem interested in the fight; he scorned the sportswriters talking shop. “They’re blind,” he said, and hinted that he had uncovered a huge story, bigger than the Ali-Foreman business: that the Republic of the Congo was building a gigantic torpedo it was planning on punting across the river at the heart of Kinshasa. Most of the newspapermen treated Thompson as a kind of kook and gave him wide berth.
Even the older guys were losing their grip. Harold Conrad, in his 60s, had—like Schulberg—been around boxing and boxers a long time. But he was more comfortable at Toots Shor’s than in Africa, and the weirdness, the scary boredom of the place, started to get to him. Before long he and Cardoso were going out looking for “Bangi Bangi” (smokable hemp); Conrad, who had never smoked anything stronger than unfiltered Camels, was now getting stoned every morning.
Some writers attributed Ali’s win to his outsmarting Foreman even before the fight began, by taking advantage of his popularity among the Zaireans. Ali had been greeted in Africa as a hero, the man who had stood up to the American government at the height of the Vietnam War. He was a symbol of Black hope and independence. In fact, Izenberg wrote, “he turned George Foreman into a white man, and I saw it happen.”
Ali’s longtime friend and business manager, Gene Kilroy, had flown over with the boxer and his entourage, landing in Zaire at three o’clock in the morning. “It was pitch-black. And there were dancers and steel drums and a big platform, and we came out of the plane and they were yelling out, ‘Ali! Ali!’ And Ali said to me, ‘Who don’t they like here?,’ and I said, ‘White people?,’ and he said, ‘Who else don’t they like here?’ And I said, ‘Belgians.’ So they’re yelling ‘Ali,’ and he put his fingers over his lips, and everyone quieted. Ali said, ‘George Foreman’s a Belgian!,’ and that’s when they started yelling, ‘Ali! Bomaye!’ So I asked our interpreter, Kalinga, ‘What’s bomaye?,’ and he said, ‘That means ‘Ali, kill him’ in Swahili.’”
On top of that, Foreman arrived in Zaire with his German shepherd, Dago. “You know, when the Belgians came after the Blacks,” Kilroy remembers, “they would come at them with those dogs. So here comes George Foreman off the plane with a German shepherd, and I turned to Muhammad and said, ‘Ali, we’re home free now.’”
Threatened by Ali?
Ali’s incredible popularity among the Zaireans wasn’t a psychological burden only on Foreman—it also troubled Mobutu. Drew “Bundini” Brown, Ali’s flamboyant friend and assistant trainer (after Angelo Dundee), had brought with him 200 T-shirts emblazoned with Ali’s face to sell at the event. Mobutu confiscated them. “They didn’t want any picture out there of Ali,” Kilroy believes. “Mobutu’s picture, by the way, was everywhere—you couldn’t get away from him.” Even the fight posters showing Ali and Foreman carried an image of Mobutu right there, alongside the two men. “The people loved Ali. If Ali had said, ‘I want to run your country,’ the people would have followed him. And that’s no kidding. Mobutu was a little leery of Ali.”
Despite having committed $10 million for the bout—$5 million for each fighter—and rounded up at least 50 or 60 street criminals and hanged them, and touted the fight as a great victory for Zaire, Mobutu didn’t even show up at ringside. Instead, he watched it on closed-circuit TV in the safety of his presidential palace. Larry Merchant thought it was because Mobutu was afraid that if Ali lost, the crowds would go wild and he would be killed. Kilroy thought that it was because if Ali won, the crowd would go wild, crown him leader of Zaire, and Mobutu would be killed.
Thompson also failed to make it to the fight. Ralph Steadman, Thompson’s friend, sidekick, and faithful illustrator, showed up two days after Thompson and tried to check into the Intercontinental Hotel in Kinshasa, only to find that his reservation had been canceled and there were no available rooms. Without a place to sleep, he moved into Thompson’s hotel room. “Everyone would come knock, knock on the door, and a lot of them calling on the phone at all times of the day and the night, asking for ‘medicine,’” he says. “That’s what they called it. It was Mary Jane, marijuana, but they would knock and say, ‘Hunter, can we have some medicine?’”
Even the older guys were losing their grip. The weirdness of Zaire started to get to them, and before long they were going out looking for “Bangi Bangi.”
Steadman must have noticed that Thompson didn’t attend the press conferences or any of the sparring sessions. By the weekend before the fight, he had a feeling something wasn’t quite right. “It was late Saturday night and somehow I got a premonition and decided to ask Hunter about it. Excuse my language, but his exact words were: ‘I’m not going to the fucking fight!’ He had given the tickets away!” Steadman couldn’t believe it. Rolling Stone had sent Thompson and was paying his expenses. Thompson worshipped Ali, especially since they were both from Louisville, Kentucky. Besides, they’d come all the way to Zaire.
Whatever Thompson’s reason—his fear of crowds, the fact that he was suffering from malaria, the potency of the local hemp, his belief that the Congolese across the river were going to launch an attack on Kinshasa—he let it be known that he planned to watch the event with Mobutu, on closed-circuit TV, safe in the presidential palace.
“But,” recalled Steadman, “that didn’t happen either.”
While everybody else was at the stadium watching the fight, Thompson put a few beers and a bottle of Glenfiddich in a bucket of ice and placed it beside the hotel pool. “He still had this big bag, the size of a pillow case, half full of marijuana,” Steadman recalled. “After all the late-night calls for ‘medicine,’ there was still half the bag left, and he dropped all that marijuana into the pool, and then just stood there and watched it swirl down gradually to the filter. He was fixed on it, like in a trance. And then he jumped in and just wallowed in it. That’s the precise word: ‘wallowed.’” Thompson lolled there, drinking and smoking, and “loving the whole meaningless nature of it.”
Steadman ended up seeing the fight the way millions of other sports fans saw it: on television.
Whatever Hunter Thompson’s reason—his fear of crowds, the fact that he had malaria, the potency of the local hemp, his belief that the Congolese were planning to attack Kinshasa—he skipped the fight.
Even though all of Zaire appeared to be for Ali, the betting odds were three-to-one against him. “We couldn’t see how it would be possible for Ali to win,” Vic Ziegel of the New York Post remembered. “He can’t dance through those big punches of Foreman’s for 15 rounds.”
Izenberg was one of the writers who had picked Ali to win by knockout in the ninth round. “For everybody in the world, there’s somebody out there,” he recalls, “and I thought that somewhere deep within Ali, he said to himself, ‘I’m the guy for this guy.’” And Izenberg knew that one of Ali’s great advantages was that he was a thinking boxer. He used his considerable intelligence in the ring. At the time, Foreman didn’t.
“When you box, and you miss a guy with a power punch, it takes more out of you than if you hit him,” says Izenberg. “You’re punching air. Every muscle, everything is going with it. I think he hurt Ali in the first round. I thought he hit him right in the neck. He got to the ropes and he survived the fight. He’s talking to George all the time this is happening: ‘That’s the hardest you can hit? How do you think you can be a champion?,’ and Foreman’s getting madder and madder, because with Foreman it’s usually, boom, bang, over, that’s it.”
Dave Anderson recalled, “There was one point, and I can’t tell you the round—the fourth or fifth—when he hit Ali and you could tell Ali had really been hit. And then Foreman threw another punch and missed him. And I’ve always thought, What would have happened if he had landed that second punch?”
Izenberg saw the moments when “all of a sudden Ali came off the ropes near the end of the eighth round, just a couple of steps, and he hit him with a short right hand. Ali was so smart. He said, ‘I got this sucker. I know what I got to do. And I know just how I’m going to do it.’ And he hits him with a short, choppy right, then he hits him with a left and he moves him, and he hits him again with a right-hand lead, which is doing it backwards. And Foreman fell in sections. His ankles fell. Then his kneecaps fell. Then his thighs. He’s such a big man that he went down, it was incredible. You could see it coming. It seemed like it took him an hour to fall.”
There’s a photograph of Plimpton and Mailer ringside, on their feet, wearing looks of sheer astonishment as Foreman fell. In The Fight, Mailer describes what happened next: “Like a drunk hoping to get out of bed to go to work, Foreman rolled over, Foreman started the slow, head-agonizing life of all the foundered bulk God somehow gave him, and whether he heard the count or no, was on his feet a fraction after the count of ten, and whipped, for when [the referee] Zack Clayton guided him with a hand at his back, he walked in docile steps to his corner and did not resist.” His cornerman received him.
“Feel all right?”
“Yeah,” said Foreman.
“Well, don’t worry. It’s history now.”
The crowd went wild—it was probably just as well that Mobutu was safe in his presidential palace, his gold-caged cats restlessly pacing outside. And that’s when the rains came—biblical rains, monsoon rains, torrential rains. Within minutes, the boxers’ dressing rooms were under three feet of water. Just like the night Ali took the heavyweight title away from Sonny Liston, back in ’64, and the heavens had opened up. It was over. The rain stopped and the sun came out. The two men had fought through the night. The interpretations, alibis, explanations, analyses, and assessments would now begin.
One of the most unusual was George Plimpton’s. Jacques, the manager of the Intercontinental Hotel, had told him that “the word around the Kinshasa betting circles was that Muhammad Ali had been to see the best féticheur in Kinshasa—indeed, the same Pygmy that President Mobutu used—and that a considerable sum had been paid for the féticheur to cook up a hex against George Foreman.” Jacques explained to Plimpton that the spell would take the form of a succubus, a “beautiful girl with slightly trembling hands,” who would brush up against Foreman and grab his hand, slowly sapping him of his powers. Plimpton discovered that the Zaireans had been placing small fetish bags of herbs under the boxing ring, to affect the outcome of the fight.
Foreman himself would later recall two strange things about that night that he credited with his loss. First, the last drink of water he was given before the fight had a strange, medicinal taste, and he felt it had been tampered with. Secondly, in the fourth round, he saw someone at ringside who unnerved him, a friend of his who was rooting for Ali. “My hurt and disappointment … lessened whatever power I had left. And there wasn’t much of it. I wondered what had happened to my stamina, let alone my strength,” Foreman wrote in his autobiography By George.
But for Merchant, the important thing was that the fight was “an astonishing event. If there were any skeptics still around about Ali as a fighter, about Ali’s courage and will … all of that was erased” that night in Zaire.
“A Night of Poetic Justice”
Izenberg agrees: “It was a night of poetic justice.” After the ferocious downpour ended, the sportswriters returned to their compound to “write it all down. After all, that’s our job. It’s early in the morning. Eleven o’clock or something. And we go down to the river. Dave Anderson was there. A couple of others. There were about seven writers. The diehards. I don’t even know why we did it, but we went down to the river, and there he is. There was Muhammad, staring into the Zaire River. And he’s all alone. Now this guy had just gone eight rounds, won the biggest fight of his life, far bigger than beating Liston, because he didn’t know what he’d done when he beat Liston. He was just a kid, a baby. But now he knew. And all we saw was his back. He had a black shirt on, a long-sleeved shirt, and he’s staring at the river, and for one time in our lives, seven sportswriters had to just shut the fuck up. We just stood there and watched him. Then he turns around and walks back and he says, ‘You’ll never know what this night meant.’”
After his defeat, Foreman fell into a blue funk that lasted two years. He fought that fight over again in his head a thousand times, even dreamed about it, but the outcome never changed.
“Foreman fell in sections. His ankles fell. Then his kneecaps fell. Then his thighs.... You could see it coming. It seemed like it took him an hour to fall.”
“I thought he was, at that point in time, unbalanced,” Larry Merchant says. “He had lost all his bearing as a fighter and as a person. It haunted him. It took years and years for him to make peace with what had happened in Zaire. His fists had always been his answers to life, so he was completely disoriented.” Then, one night, Foreman underwent a religious conversion that took place after a brutal 10 rounds with fighter Jimmy Young, which sent Foreman to the hospital.
Izenberg was there in the dressing room after the fight. “He’d tried to baptize himself in the shower. He was dehydrated and hallucinating. At the hospital, the doctors thought he might die. Then he started saying he found God. I said to somebody, ‘He didn’t find God. Jimmy Young’s left hook found him.’ So he disappears, and I don’t hear anything more about him. Then I see a photo in the paper in Marshall, Texas. He’s got a bullhorn in one hand and a Bible in the other. He’s preaching in the street.”
Zaire Is Where “Ali Became … the Hero”
As for the writers, Mailer would produce a masterpiece out of Zaire, The Fight, still in print today. After all, a certain kind of writer has always been attracted to “the sweet science”—from Lord Byron to Arthur Conan Doyle, to Jack London, to Ernest Hemingway, to Nelson Algren, to Joyce Carol Oates. John Buffalo Mailer, the youngest of Mailer’s nine children and now a playwright and actor, recalls going to the Gramercy Gym since the age of four with his father and a posse of Mailer friends, cousins, and siblings.
“Boxing was the family sport. It’s about facing your demons, your insecurities. A way to claim your manhood,” John says one night in Santa Monica, where his play Hello Herman is having its West Coast debut. It’s also a good metaphor for writing: “The getting up and slugging away at every page until you get the job done, the stamina. I think there was a discipline to boxing that physicalized his mental discipline of writing.” Another thing Mailer loved was the moment after the fight when the two men hug. “After they’ve been through the battle, they’re the only two who understand the experience. That’s why boxers are such sweet guys usually, and why writers hang with each other.”
As for Hunter Thompson, his stamina for writing declined. “After Africa,” Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner told the film critic Roger Ebert, “he just couldn’t write. He couldn’t put it together.” In failing health, Thompson took his own life in 2005 at his home, in Woody Creek, Colorado. He was given an extravagant, $3 million send-off that would have made Mobutu proud. The funeral was organized and funded by his pal Johnny Depp, and Thompson’s ashes were shot from a cannon atop a 153-foot-tall tower crowned by a fist holding a peyote button.
George Plimpton went on to co-write two seminal oral biographies—one of the Andy Warhol It Girl, Edie Sedgwick, and one of Truman Capote—and a book on fireworks, one of his passions. He wrote less often about sports after the Ali-Foreman fight. Plimpton died in Manhattan in 2003.
Dave Anderson, who died in 2018 and was only the second sportswriter in history to win the Pulitzer Prize, lamented, “So much happened in Zaire. It’s where Ali became the giant killer, the good guy, the hero. It’s strange when you [saw] Ali, his hands like you’d hold a bird when you were a little kid, his face a kind of mask. With Ali out of the picture, boxing has lost its thrill. The early 70s—today, that looks like a golden era.”
George Foreman’s transformation would have seemed unimaginable 47 years ago. After becoming a lay preacher, he became a lovable, passionate pitchman for the George Foreman Grills and for a Web site for inventors. Foreman has come to love and respect his former adversary, saying recently, “He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not the greatest boxer—that’s too small for him. He had a gift. He’s not ‘pretty,’ he’s beautiful. Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.”
Sam Kashner, a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL, is a co-author, along with Ash Carter, of Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Nancy Schoenberger is the author of Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero and a co-author, with Kashner, of The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee