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Film / When We Were Kings

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When We Were Kings is a 1996 documentary film directed by Leon Gast.

It is a history of the famous 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Foreman is the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, having won the title with a merciless beatdown of Joe Frazier ("Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!") and retained it with an equally savage destruction of challenger Ken Norton. Muhammad Ali, for his part, is attempting to regain the title he held from 1964 to 1967, before he was stripped of the title due to his refusal to submit to induction in the U.S. Army during The Vietnam War. Foreman is demonstrably bigger and stronger than Ali as well as seven years younger. While Foreman pounded Joe Frazier and Ken Norton each into jelly in the second round, Ali had lost to both Frazier and Norton in recent years.note  For all of those reasons, Foreman is a prohibitive favorite.

The fight is scheduled in Kinshasa, Zaire. The reason for the exotic locale is that promoter Don King, having promised the fighters five million dollars apiece but not having anywhere near that much capital, goes looking for bidders, and the high bid was made by Zaire's brutal, bloodthirsty dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. While the location was a matter of cold hard cash, it quickly becomes significant in the black community, both among African-Americans who feel a new connection with Africa, and with natives of Zaire who view civil rights activist Muhammad Ali as a hero.

A famous Troubled Production (see reporting here and here) that went through 22 years of Development Hell. Originally supposed to be a Concert Film about all the musical acts that went to Africa to stage a concert in coordination with the fight. The original idea was for the concert film to have clips from Ali and Foreman as supplementary material, while the finished film was exactly the opposite. The 22-year delay allowed for the inclusion of interviews with various talking heads, including Spike Lee, who talks about the significance of the fight in the African-American community, as well as Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who were there in Kinshasa to cover the fight. The Talking Heads segments were filmed by an uncredited Taylor Hackford (uncredited in that he didn't get a directorial credit, that is, although he did get "A Film By" along with Gast).

For a fictionalized account of the Rumble in the Jungle, see the biopic Ali. Received an Affectionate Parody in the form of the Documentary Now! episode How They Threw Rocks.


  • Badass Boast: Muhammad Ali, everybody.
    Ali: I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty and can't possibly be beat.
  • Blatant Lies: Ali's pre-fight smack talk often reaches heights of delightful absurdity.
    Ali: Only last week I murdered a rock.
  • Concert Film: It was supposed to be this. Although the focus of the film had radically changed by the time it was finally released, it still has lengthy scenes from the festival, including performances by James Brown and B.B. King as well as local African artists.
  • Cross-Cultural Kerfluffle: Foreman arrives in Africa in the company of his pet German shepherd. All it means is that George Foreman likes dogs, but in the Belgian Congo, the Belgian slavedrivers used German shepherds to terrorize and control the workers. The locals, already inclined to prefer Ali, become even more so.
  • David vs. Goliath: Virtually no one gave Ali a chance. While Ali was a throwback to the somewhat smaller heavyweight, Foreman was the model of the modern hulking heavyweight boxer.
  • Death Glare: Quite the bloodcurdling stare that Foreman delivers to Ali as they touch gloves.
  • The Dreaded: George Foreman. Mailer says "the word murderous does not quite apply." According to Mailer, Ali's own entourage was uncharateristically subdued prior to the fight, believing that Foreman not only will win but that he might kill Muhammad Ali, who certainly won't quit even if he's getting pummeled. Mailer recalls how Foreman's heavy bag would be left with a dent in it after Foreman was done punching.
  • Funny Afro: Don King's crazy hair has always been part of his persona. Plimpton says "Some people would say that he's stuck his thumb into an electric socket," which is followed by an immediate cut to a giggling Mailer saying "falling down an elevator shaft."
  • Happily Ever Before: Discussed Trope. Mailer talks about how Ali fought 22 more fights after Foreman and how "he hurt himself in those 22 fights." Plimpton observes that boxing was the thing Ali loved most, and it destroyed him. (By the time the Talking Heads were recorded, 20 years after the rest of the footage, Ali had been rendered unable to speak due to Parkinson's disease.)
  • Hidden Depths: Don King is an obvious huckster and con artist. But he can also bust out a quote from As You Like It about adversity—"Ugly and venomous like a toad, but wears a precious jewel on his head."
  • Insistent Terminology: Foreman, annoyed at questioning after a cut on his face forces a six-week postponement, says "There will not be a delay. The fight will be rescheduled, but when it happens, it will be intended for that time."
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used once very effectively. A grainy newspaper photo appears of reporters Plimpton and Mailer, staring in open-mouthed astonishment. The camera then zooms out to reveal that it's a picture of Foreman tumbling to the ground as he's knocked out by Ali. Later, near the end of the movie, a photo montage of Ali's life and career uses pans and zooms for almost every picture.
  • President Evil: Mobutu. Mailer calls him "Stalinist", talks about his bloodthirsty reign, and notes how the very stadium that the fight was held in had underground dungeons devoted to torture and murder.
  • The Quiet One: Foreman, who rarely speaks, in dramatic contrast to Ali the Motor Mouth.
  • Shocking Defeat Legacy: For one man, George Foreman. Mentioned only briefly at the end of the film, as Mailer talks about Foreman's "two-year depression". In Real Life, a troubled Foreman retired from boxing in 1977, only to come back ten years later and shock the world by eventually winning the title in 1994, becoming the oldest heavyweight champion of all time.
  • Stock Footage: Of the fight, which Leon Gast was not allowed to film. A few more brief clips of Ali's career, or Mobutu, etc. Everything else is Gast's original footage from 1974.
  • The Strategist: Ali, with his clever tactics to beat Foreman.
    • First there was the "right-hand lead". As Mailer explains in the movie, the right-hand lead—leading with your strong hand if you're a right-handed boxer, that is—is an extremely dangerous tactic because it leaves you open to a devastating counter-punch. Consequently professional boxers rarely use it. Ali used it several times in the early going, scoring some hits and confusing Foreman with an odd tactic.
    • Then there was the "rope-a-dope" strategy. In the second round Ali hung back against the ropes. His supporters, who had expected him to "dance", were horrified. Plimpton even said "The fix is in!" But leaning far back against the ropes and forcing Foreman to lunge at him both robbed Foreman's punches of most of their power, and led to Foreman's exhausting himself. Ali's continual taunting—"I thought you could punch harder than that, George!"—enraged Foreman, causing him to punch wildly and further tiring him out. This allowed Ali to attack later, after Foreman had punched himself out.
  • Talking Heads: By this time Muhammad Ali was in no condition to be interviewed, and Foreman isn't interviewed either. Interviewees include Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and African artist Malik Bowens.
  • The Unfavorite: George Foreman, who can't understand why Ali is such a huge favorite with the local crowd when Foreman is blacker than Ali is. Ali's cultural cachet after fighting the U.S. government over his induction, and his opposition to the Vietnam War, simply makes him much more appealing.
  • Young Future Famous People: One of Ali's sparring partners is a young Larry Holmes, who will later become heavyweight champion and effectively end Ali's career by dealing him a humiliating defeat in 1980.