Rumble in the Jungle: The Black Power Boxing Match of the Century

Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman

George Foreman is KO'd by Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30, 1974. Agence France Presse/Getty Images

On October 30, 1974, boxing champions George Foreman and Muhammad Ali faced off in Kinshasa, Zaire in “the Rumble in the Jungle”, an epic match widely recognized as one of the most important sporting events in recent history. The venue, the politics of the two fighters, and the efforts of its promoter, Don King, made this heavy-weight championship into a fight over competing ideas of black identity and power.

It was a multi-million dollar anti-colonial, anti-white dominance exhibition, and one of the grandest spectacles of Mobutu Sese Seko’s long reign in the Congo.

The Pan-Africanist versus the All American

The “Rumble in the Jungle” came about because Muhammad Ali, the former heavy-weight champion, wanted his title back. Ali opposed the American Vietnam War, which he saw as another manifestation of white oppression of other races. In 1967, he refused to serve in the US Army and was found guilty of draft evasion. In addition to being fined and jailed, he was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years. His stance, though, earned him the support of anti-colonialists world-wide, including in Africa.

During Ali’s ban from boxing, a new champion emerged, George Foreman, who proudly waved the American flag at the Olympics. This was a time when many other African-American athletes were raising the black power salute, and white Americans saw Foreman as an example of powerful, but unthreatening black masculinity.

Foreman supported America, because he himself had been lifted out of grinding poverty by governmental programs. But for many people of African descent, he was the white man’s black man.

Black Power and Culture

From the start the match was about Black Power in more ways than one. It was organized by Don King, an African-American sports promoter in an era when only white men managed and profited from sporting events.

This match was the first of King’s spectacle prize fights, and he promised an unheard of $10-million-dollar prize purse.  King needed a wealthy host, and he found it in Mobutu Sese Seko, then leader of Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

In addition to hosting the match, Mobutu brought in some of the most renowned black musicians in the world at that time to perform in a massive three-day party to coincide with the fight. But when George Foreman was injured in training, the match had to be postponed. All those musicians could not postpone their performances, though, so the concerts ended up being held five weeks before the fight itself, to the disappointment of many. Still the match and its fanfare were a clear statement about the value and beauty of black culture and identity.

Why Zaire?

According to Lewis Erenberg, Mobutu spent  $15 million dollars on the stadium alone. He got assistance, reportedly from Liberia, for the music concerts, but the total sum spent on the match is equal to at least $120 million dollars in 2014, and probably far more.

What was Mobutu thinking in spending so much on a boxing match? Mobutu Sese Seko was known for his spectacles with which he asserted the power and wealth of Zaire, despite the fact that by the end of his rule, most Zairians were living in deep poverty.

In 1974, though, this trend was not yet as evident. He had been in power for nine years, and during that time Zaire had witnessed economic growth. The country, after initial struggles, appeared to on the rise, and the Rumble in the Jungle was a party for Zairians as well as a massive marketing scheme to promote Zaire as a modern, exciting place to be. Celebrities like Barbara Streisand attended the match, and it brought the country international attention. The new stadium gleamed, and the match drew favorable attention.

Colonial and Anti-Colonial Politics

At the same time, the very title, coined by King, “the Rumble in the Jungle” reinforced images of Darkest Africa. Many Western viewers also saw the large images of Mobutu displayed at the match as signs of the cult of power and sycophantism they expected of African leadership.

When Ali won the match in the 8th round, though, it was a victory for all those who had seen this as a match of white versus black, of establishment versus an anti-colonial new order. Zairians and many other former colonial subjects celebrated Ali’s victory and his vindication as the heavy weight champion of the world.

Sources:

Erenberg, Lewis A. "“Rumble in the Jungle”: Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman in the Age of Global Spectacle."Journal of Sport History 39, no. 1 (2012): 81-97. https://muse.jhu.edu/ Journal of Sport History 39.1 (Spring 2012)

Van Reybrouck, David. Congo: The Epic History of a People. Translated by Sam Garrett. Harper Collins, 2010.   

Williamson, Samuel. "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, 2015.

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Thompsell, Angela. "Rumble in the Jungle: The Black Power Boxing Match of the Century." ThoughtCo, Mar. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/rumble-in-the-jungle-43348. Thompsell, Angela. (2017, March 7). Rumble in the Jungle: The Black Power Boxing Match of the Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rumble-in-the-jungle-43348 Thompsell, Angela. "Rumble in the Jungle: The Black Power Boxing Match of the Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rumble-in-the-jungle-43348 (accessed November 17, 2017).