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‘When We Were Kings’ (1996): Review

‘When We Were Kings’ (1996): Review


Director: Leon Gast
Stars: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Don King


With the recent passing of legendary boxer Mohammad Ali, looking back at his remarkable career is only natural. His achievements have been covered by almost countless sources in the decades he was a household name, but only one has really caught the enigmatic and magnetic performer and his legacy with all the raw power and explosive energy as the man himself. It’s When We Were Kings.

When We Were Kings

Whether you’re a boxing fan or not, the impressive presence of Mohammad Ali cannot be denied. A fan or detractor, one must look in awe upon his incredible influence on not just boxing but sport in general. A showman above all, he was devout in his commitment to his beliefs and his cause. He was a loud, arrogant and yet infectiously charming statesman who transformed boxing, yet by 1974, he was thought to be done, over the hill and close to being washed out. He was scheduled to fight the reigning heavyweight champion, a young, brash, fearsome fighter named George Foreman, well before he became the television star with the beaming face of lovable cuddles he eventually became. While Foreman was champ, he was rock, an undefeated behemoth that was becoming the biggest sure thing in the business. Nobody thought Ali, a former champion, had the slightest chance. Nobody except Ali.

The event became the biggest media circus of the year. Held in Zaire, the city of Kinshasa was overrun with press, entertainers, and celebrities and the long celebration leading up the fight became a party. In attendance were some of the best journalists of the time, including Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who covered the proceeds, and more than twenty years later, for this documentary, reflect back on the sheer madness and excitement of the contest and the build up around it.

We learn that infamous fight promoter Don King was behind the event, raising millions for both fighters, and lining his own pockets. We also see that as much as the fight was meant to be a match between to greats, the battle was cleanly divided into two roles, the hero and the villain, with Foreman cast from the start as the nefarious bad-guy, a role he was never comfortable with and even questioned how and why so many in the former Republic of Congo were so set against him. Marketing is the answer. This was compounded by a cut above his eye in a sparring round before the fight, which meant the contest would need to be reschedule, allowing more of the dislike to spread while the party around him raged on.

Directed by Leon Gast, this Oscar-winning documentary provides a deeply satisfying and often exhilarating look at that week-long event that isn’t so much about the fight as it is the sensational story leading up to it. Fascinating insight from the people who were there, it feels like no other documentary ever made. It captures much about the enigma of Ali, a man at that time who was still fighting opposition for his decision not to fight in Vietnam. We see a challenged individual use the gala as way to use the press to lessen the hatred surrounding him for that decision to not join the military and recognize the sheer intensity that would redefine him forever after. No, it’s not easy to compare the footage of the blisteringly strong and agile Ali with the later man we know so well, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984. But it’s also a needful reminder to remember well the greats who deserve our highest honer.

What works well is how effective it is despite our knowing the outcome (and if you don’t then watching will be even more satisfying). That Ali and Foreman would become the greatest of friends in the decades after is also testament to this fight’s lasting impact and why looking back on such a moving experience is important. This is one fight with no losers.

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