Greatest sporting event should be one of those pub debates that goes on all evening. The opening gambit will be the 1970 World Cup; your mate on the craft ale suggests the Miracle on Ice; by the second pint, the 2005 Ashes has been hopefully put forward. And then somebody remembers The Rumble in the Jungle and the rest of the evening is spent losing all your money on the quiz machine.
The 1974 heavyweight title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali has attained an almost mythic potency. An impossibly handsome and brave hero defeats a seemingly unbeatable foe to regain the crown unjustly taken from him. A tale from a storybook, but few stories are as rooted in history: the fight was born from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
Obviously, the fight has the extraordinary advantage of Muhammad Ali as one of its central protagonists, not so much an athlete as an icon. But Ali was far from the only legend in the building. Promoter Don King and broadcast David Frost would become masters of their respective trades. Norman Mailer attended and wrote a book about the fight; Hunter S Thompson got drunk in his hotel pool and didn’t. George Foreman would find God, endorse a grill and recapture a version of the heavyweight title aged 45 in a comeback even more unlikely than Ali’s.
The other great protagonist was Zaire itself, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its dictator Mobutu Sese Seko wanted the fight to promote his regime yet the population was fanatical in its support of Ali, with crowds following their hero everywhere chanting “Ali, bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”) An eye injury to Foreman caused the fight to be delayed and kept the circus in town for nearly two months. When creating the mystique that surrounds Foreman vs Ali, the jungle played as big a role as the rumble.
It’s impossible to go back and watch the real thing but here’s the next best alternative. Rumble in the Jungle: Rematch is immersive theatre on a scale almost as large as the fight that inspired it. A vast hangar in Canada Water has been transformed into 1974 Kinshasa.
Market stalls sell African food and local cocktails – or you can pop to the Intercontinental hotel across town for a hotdog. Soldiers and policemen stalk the perimeters. David Frost and Don King work the crowd, the former staging impromptu interviews, the latter shaking hands and posing for photos. There’s a lot to take in, and you’ll have plenty of time to do so.
The production – and man, it doesn’t feel like a production – lasts approximately three and a half hours. Most of your time is spent in ‘the city’. There are a couple of big moments: Ali and Foreman face off in a press conference on the main stage; Foreman injures his eye and Don King announces the delay. Mostly, however, the action unspools all around you. Choices must be made: do you watch Foreman hit the bags or a musical performance in the market?
Here’s a good example: my girlfriend and I were heading to the bar when Ali and a group of admirers went jogging past us. A woman in a brightly coloured dress – who may or may not have been part of the cast – suggested we come and watch Ali train. So we go into a smaller room with a boxing ring and punch bags, maybe 15, 20 of us. Ali enters the ring, messes around, chats to some of the audience. Then his cornerman Bundini Brown enters with news of Foreman’s injury…
Only a handful of the total audience witnessed this scene. We happened to be in the right place at the right time – although we almost certainly missed some other action unfolding elsewhere. For example, a few minutes earlier, we were enjoying a drink while Ali was being interviewed on the main stage and who should come running past but Foreman, clutching his eye. Some of the audience might have seen that injury occur; we did not. It’s a bit like a music festival: enjoy what you can, accept you can’t be everywhere at once.
Speaking of music festivals, you get one. Zaire 74 saw the likes of James Brown, BB King, Bill Withers and Celia Cruz perform in a three-day extravaganza ahead of the fight. The Rematch’s version lasts about 30 minutes but the musical impersonators are fantastic, especially a James Brown so energetic I thought he might leap off the stage.
Speak to Don King. He might slip you some ringside tickets – which, if you’re very lucky, will result in an invite to Ali’s dressing room pre-fight. There can’t have been more than a dozen of us, watching as Ali shadowboxed and tried to galvanise a silent entourage who feared their hero was going to his death. His words were almost drowned out by the noise of the stadium we couldn’t see: announcements, music, cheers from the rest of the audience. It was a spine-tingling experience. It felt alive. It felt real.
Conversely, the fight itself is a brilliant piece of theatre. Actors in the ring mimic archive footage shown on a vast screen behind them. After the first round, the staging becomes even more creative, ingeniously taking you into the lives and minds of both the fighters and their African audience. The climax is particularly moving, and unexpected in its payoff. All the cast deserve their flowers but the standouts were Elliot Rodriguez’s Don King, Tim O’Hara’s David Frost and Guy Kelton-Jones bringing the funk as James Brown.
Look, I love boxing; I was always going to love this. My girlfriend emphatically does not love boxing and she loved it, too. She cried, twice: in Ali’s changing room and in the fight’s aftermath. We even watched When We Were Kings the next day and picked out all the touches embedded in the show. (King's suit, the statue, the trombonist to name but three.) Ali, eh? He really was the Greatest – and this show does him and Big George proud.
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Rumble in the Jungle: Rematch runs until 29 October. Get your tickets here