Ali in Africa -- Up Close & Personal

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Muhammad Ali's mind worked differently. At first, it seemed merely disjointed and illogical. But as days passed with him, I came to appreciate it as free-flowing and creative. Even in boxing, often deemed a thuggish, brainless endeavor, imagination can beat logic.

Nothing in our experiences would have brought us together, except Africa, where odd happenings become the norm.

Ali got there because Don King -- out of prison after stomping a man to death -- had hit upon a kindred soul fond of money and showmanship, Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko (whose full name in Lingala means "the cock that leaves no hen untouched"). King got the President to bankroll for $10+ million the world heavy-weight bout in the capital, Kinshasa, of what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I had been living there for more than two years as a foreign service "dependent husband," my wife Carol serving in USAID. I was finishing my dissertation for Georgetown University in September 1974 when Don King asked if I'd help get the Zairian government to deliver on what it had promised, in order to broadcast the "Rumble in the Jungle."

Ali loved Africa before he even got there, and constantly heralded its glories once there. Mobutu had cleverly dispatched one of the two Air Zaire 747s, captained by the only Zairian pilot, to take Ali and his entourage from Europe down to Kinshasa.

Having modest success with Mobutu's government -- the only kind possible with that government -- Don King recommended me to Ali as someone to take him around town, which I could do well, and translate for him, which I could not do well. Yet I turned out to be an accurate translator. Ali's English was often baffling to me, while my French was more often baffling to Zairians.

Not that Ali mispronounced his words. He spoke crisply, in fact. It was just that he spoke poetry while I was thinking in prose. His talk was of images; my thoughts were of schedules and logistics.

He seemed to understood when I asked, days into his training on the isolated hilltop of the presidential compound, whether he would like to see something of Africa, about which he had been speaking incessantly.

Ali answered with flourishes: the planes across the continent were all African jumbo jets; its pilots all local folks; its women, in their long flowing skirts, all modest and pure, its ways genuine. I listened to such bullets of a fertile mind. But I needed to know whether to order a car for 4:30 that afternoon, to go down to the Ivory Market.

After several attempts, I just ordered the car. Some days we went, some we didn't. There was no telling.
Muhammad Ali was wonderful company, but more company than anticipated. During an early, in-country sparring bout, , George Foreman cut his eyelid, and the fight was postponed a month.

To keep Ali from going stir-crazy, we brought American movies into his compound. After dinner, I'd struggle to spool the film in the projector. Soon his brother, parents, chef, trainer Angelo Dundee, and a sparring partner or two, gathered around. Ali laid on the floor, a mound of muscle and fiber, soon shouting out comments on the colors or sounds or shapes or smiles on the screen. His verbal shots were funny; many were clever, some just bewildering. He caught and appreciated the image, while I at least was focusing on the plotline.

Our movie nights ended when Foreman's eye healed. At 4:00 in the morning on October 30, 1974, the boxers entered the ring in the thrown-together, just-in-time outdoor stadium. Ali was heavily favored by the Zairians; Foreman by the odds-makers and boxing writers.

During the opening rounds, they performed as expected, Ali more fleet-footed but seven years older, Foreman more hard-hitting but heavier. Then suddenly, in the eighth round, came that burst of creativity.
At first, Ali's behavior in the ring was as mystifying as his movie shout-outs from the floor. He leaned on the ropes, crouched in protective mode, and let Foreman slug away. Nothing he had practiced in sparring hours, nothing discussed with Angelo Dundee, nothing foreseen by the boxing experts or anticipated by Foreman, who kept pounding in the tropical heat.

Suddenly Ali emerged from his protective crouch to slam the exhausted reigning-champ. Within seconds, he handily knocked Foreman down and out, in what he famously dubbed "Rope a Dope."

Later I could see in Ali the traits characteristic of creative people -- high energy, varied interests and approaches, oft-disjointed thought patterns, non-conformity, originality, and high risk-taking. Such people have the gift to, as Shakespeare puts it, "apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends." Creativity counts for a lot.

Some thirty years later, I was strolling through the lobby of the Waldorf Hotel and heard a commotion in a corner. A big lumbering man was surrounded, and seemingly bewildered, by a gaggle of star-struck kids. He looked up and evidently spotted me, as he slowly raised an arm, pointed a finger, and said, "Africa. Africa." I smiled and said, "Yep, Africa."

This may not sound like much, but it meant a lot to me. And still does.