In my lifetime, I have seen three boxing matches. My first experience was David Haye taking on Tony Bellew, an apparently great fight, although I couldn’t tell through a hazy vision distilled by vodka and cocktail sausages. Clips of Uwe Boll’s Raging Boll contest soon followed, and then a viewing of the infamous Rumble in the Jungle. Great sportsmen are few and far between. Muhammad Ali is one such eminent athlete. His impact as a public figure packed just as much a punch as he did in the ring. When We Were Kings documents the infamous lead-up, action and fallout of the Rumble in the Jungle, where an ageing Ali faced the prime up-and-comer, George Foreman.
On display throughout is a great collation of footage and interviews, nicely pieced together by Gast’s fine documentarian work. A true passion project, taking decades to fund and create, Gast and his dedication to documenting this milestone of sporting achievement is appreciative of the time and impact the Rumble in the Jungle had on boxing and the sport scene across the globe. A tenacious rivalry grew between the two, trading verbal blows and jabs in interviews and press conferences long before they squared off in the ring. Daunting it may be to step in the ring with someone, the mental and physical fatigue found by travelling, interviewing and fighting is captured well.
When We Were Kings is not just a focus of this Rumble in the Jungle, though, it captures the atmosphere that surrounded it. Key players, politicians and musicians all came together under a festival that ran alongside the title fight. Don King features predominantly, his pulling of the strings and behind the scenes action instrumental in piecing the fight together. An insightful analysis of the fight itself soon follows, with trainers, sportswriters and boxers weighing in on how the rope-a-dope strategy paid off. Spike Lee offers the most poignant point of all, declaring how worrying he finds it that so many of the current generation are either ignorant or blind to the memory and importance of political and cultural leaders, the advocates that inspire and assert themselves in the responsibility of role model.
As much a documentation of Ali and his activism as it is an understanding of African and African-American culture, detailing the modernised landscape that would soon define the culture they had and have to offer. With a cutting soundtrack of classic jazz and soul, When We Were Kings is defined by its offerings, which linger on the mind and soul of a great, innovative documentary. With no partisanship or prejudice for any of the fighters, frontrunners or fortunate few who witnessed the fight in person, When We Were Kings offers a crucial balanced and unbiased account of boxing’s greatest triumph.