“Ali, Boma, ye,” is how the love affair was announced to the world. This was a wedding reception, the crest of a love affair that had started way before. The chant is not your usual romantic lyric as it means “Ali, kill him” but when you express your adoration for the world’s greatest boxer, you do not shout sweet nothings. It made sense for the Congolese people gathered in Kinshasa to tell Ali to kill George Foreman and indeed, he did crush him much to the glee of all Africans who knew. The fight was dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle,” an epic battle between that era’s best fighters in a Kinshasa stadium in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Zaire. Ali’s “right hooks over Foreman’s jab, five-punch combination, left hook that brought Foreman’s head up into position and a hard right straight to the face” sealed the deal in the eighth round. The match is one of the greatest boxing bouts in the history of the sport and still excites decades after 1974. Ali became a monstrous idol for most Africans from then onwards. It has been a long marriage broken by death but the love remains.
Ali was loved by Africans for achieving almost unimaginable feats of sporting glory yet remaining in touch with what it meant to be black in the civil rights era Nelson Mandela, one of Africa’s greatest leaders was a big fan of Ali and the head of the Nelson Mandela Foundation recently revealed that the late veteran leader of South Africa called Ali his boxing hero. Sello Hatang, the Foundation’s CEO said, “Madiba had great respect for his legacy and spoke with admiration of Ali’s achievements.” He even kept a photograph of Ali and himself on his desk and his favourite book was an autographed biography of Ali. President Kwame Nkrumah is said to have directed the government’s radio stations and newspapers to promote the American champion as an African hero, “a source of inspiration to the youth of the world”. He was also lauded as the one man who could disprove “the superiority of the white man”. This is an interesting aspect of the boxer; he became more than just a fighter in the ring but a political symbol of the black-man’s struggle for parity. It is that understanding that inspired an unnamed boxing champion in the Democratic Republic of Congo to tell ITV News that, “We believe Ali is African because we the black people were taken to America into slavery and the black Americans are our brothers.”
The boxer was not short of affection for Africa too as he is known to have visited not just Ghana and DRC (Zaire) but Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. He captured the imagination of Africans in Ghana when he said he was “glad to be back home” and went on to say he would tell the people back in America “that there are more things to be seen in Africa than lions and elephants”. He explained that whites had distorted the image of Africa that black Americans would not dare visit it.
“They never told us about your beautiful flowers, magnificent hotels, beautiful houses, beaches, great hospitals, schools and universities.”
It is such fights against the white supremacist ideologies of the times that made him a darling of most Africans. His boxing was therefore even dwarfed by what he stood for and believed in. Some people have gone to the extent of calling him their first “black super-hero”. Such was the high regard Africans had for the greatest, the king.
Muhammad Ali inspired a whole continent to believe in itself and the influence is easy to see when one considers the level of love Africans have for the champion’s sport. This is the legacy of the “Rumble in the Jungle”. When his accomplishments are now listed, it then occurs to the world that he did not boast enough. He did not brag enough. He did not even realise he was such a one-man movement, a political figure and not simply an extraordinary boxer. He may be no more but his spirit and legacy lives on. Ali is alive in Africa and the love story continues.
For more on Ali, Slate offers a wide coverage from Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcom X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith.