In October 1974, a thrilling three-day music festival for some eighty thousand fans in Kinshasa, Zaire then a still-emerging and politically unstable African nation, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo served as a backdrop to what has since been described as the greatest world heavyweight championship of all time. Muhammad Ali was to stage his resurrection, overcoming all adversity to knock out George Foreman in the eighth round. It was the most bizarre and dramatic event that sport has ever known.
The prelude to this sensation was music: an unprecedented gathering of African and American artists on the dark continent, in jungle Africa, the crucible of their art. It was a brilliant and inspired line-up that included James Brown, B.B. King, Sister Sledge, Bill Withers and Miriam Makeba, as well as the irresistible Pointer Sisters – whose contribution to the greatest show on earth can be seen here for the first time on ShowBiz TV tonight.
This legendary moment in sporting and musical history had begun to take shape in Caracas, Venezuela, six months earlier: the day after forbidding, unstoppable Foreman half-killed Ken Norton. Foreman versus Ali was a natural progression. To the worlds astonishment, this fight would take place in Zaire: orchestrated by Don King, the convicted murderer turned smoke-haired black entrepreneur from Cleveland who was emerging as a significant presence in boxing.
The prodigal sons will be returning home to Africa, King declared. this will be a spectacular such as has never yet been staged on planet earth.
Sport, like music, provides a convenient vehicle for exaggeration. Its themes are fundamental: success versus failure, youth versus ageing, about making it against all odds. The highest achievers in these, the purest of disciplines, are the keepers of humanitys hopes and dreams. The drama that unfolded in Zaire that May, and which proved almost suffocatingly intense, had everything. Not only was it the ultimate spectacle in entertainment and endeavour, but its participants, artists and sportsmen alike, put their very lives at risk to be part of it. Noble, intelligent, cool and strong, Ali rose above the naysayers to claim his victory. At thirty two, he had been considered past his prime. His refusal to serve in the US military on moral grounds was still a sore issue for many. At thirty two – in those days on the threshold of middle-aged – he was the heavyweight champion again.
All those writers who said I was washed up, commented Ali, post-fight, all those people who thought I had nothing left but my mouth, all of them who were waiting for me to get the biggest beating of all times; they thought George could do it for them, but they know better now. In the deepest recesses of his damaged mind, and behind his inability to communicate, he might wonder today whether it was worth it.
However we think of fame, Ali remains world-famous, and not merely for his achievements in the ring. People associate Ali with boxing in the way they associate Babe Ruth with baseball, or Jack Nicklaus with golf, or Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and David Bowie with music. But iconic status derives from much more than that.
For the disenfranchised, boxing, perhaps more than any other sport – more than football, and perhaps even more than music – represents a means of transcending fate; it was regarded by many, certainly in Alis day, as an escape route from festering squalor. A means of refining and legitimising the rage induced by deprivation and prejudice. By the time Muhammad Ali had become all things to all people – hero, traitor, scoundrel, zealot, bigot, philanderer, philosopher, rabble-rouser and prophet, though perhaps, above all, the most remarkable and charismatic sportsman the world had ever known – his dreams had become the very essence of his being. Thats fame for you.
THE POINTER SISTERS LIVE IN AFRICA: Saturday 27th February 11pm on ShowBiz TV, Sky Channel 266.
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