Sunday, January 15, 2006

WHEN WE WERE KINGS - The Sorrow and the Pity

WHEN WE WERE KINGS is a documentary that covers the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight boxing bout between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman. Ali, at 32, was written off by all the sports writers, but by means of his innovative "rope-a-dope" technique pulled off a stunning and career-defining success. The documentary, which deservedly won Best Doc. at the 1997 Oscars, successfully captures the tension of the match, despite the fact that we all know the outcome. Interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton give us an insider view to the Ali camp. But the doc., while focusing on a single match, is, in some ways, more successful than Michael Mann's biopic in showing us the "meaning" of Ali's life. It's all here. We get the scrabbling over Ali's earning power, with a young Don King and members of the Nation of Islam with their snouts in the trough. The racial politics are all there too. Ali contrasts the position of the "rich and lazy" oppressed American blacks with the "poor but dignified and free" Africans. Ali believed he was on a mission from God, and that boxing was just the first step....

All this is great stuff, but the real reason for renting or buying this DVD is that the makers have included the complete footage of both the Rumble in the Jungle, and the fight against "Smokin'" Joe Frasier - the Thrilla in Manilla. Watching the rope-a-dope in its entirety is great entertainment, not least seeing Ali verbally taunting Foreman. Foreman was the man with the most powerful punch in boxing but Ali just sat on the ropes, taking punch after punch, all the time saying to George, "that's just not hard enough, George!" Once Foreman was punched out, Ali turned on him, delivering the knock-out punch and claiming the title for himself, for his fans in Africa, and as Ali believed, for God.
Watching the Thrilla in Manilla, the appreciation of artistry turns to horror. In sharp contrast with the Rumble, the Thrilla was a nasty, vicious, brutal slug-fest. Neither player could dominate the other and it became a matter of who was in better "condition". In other words, over 15 rounds, who could take the most punishment. Now, I am not saying that it was in this match that Ali took the punch that tipped him into illness. However, seeing him take such punishment you feel that you are seeing a god being brought down into disability. The match makes for compelling but uncomfortable viewing - just like a slow-motion car wreck. You feel sick watching it, yet cannot help admiring the display. There is no greater proof that Ali was the greatest of all time, but what a price to pay.

WHEN WE WERE KINGS is available on Region 1 and 2 DVD.


  1. You are too easy on the Mann movie. It was incoherent.

  2. Maybe - but Will Smith was surprisingly good and at least Spike didn't make it.