In The Rumble in the Jungle, historian Lewis A. Erenberg provides readers with a remarkably fresh and exciting account of the 1974 landmark world heavyweight title fight in Zaire where challenger Muhammad Ali knocked out heavily favored champion George Foreman. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable readers of boxing history and the life and times of Muhammad Ali will learn many new things from this engagingly written and well-researched work.
The first two chapters of the book, needed to introduce readers to the two protagonists, are its most conventional and derivative; we have heard the stories and read some of the analyses before, although Erenberg manages to keep it interesting most of the way and memorable in several places. In one instance, for example, he pulls a quote from an Egyptian newspaper, Cairo’s Republic, to reflect the positive local response to Ali, who a few months in 1964 after winning his first championship had toured the region including Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt.
While previous authors have explored this tour almost exclusively from an American and English-speaking perspective, sometimes framing it as a cutting-edge iteration of the pan-Africanist leanings of the nascent U.S. Black Power moment, Erenberg’s characteristic methodological tendency toward the international source not written in English leads us to the better conclusion that the symbolic contemporary potency of Ali’s travels stemmed primarily from their ties to the Muslim world.
Erenberg locates Ali at the nexus of the antiwar movement, Black freedom struggle, and youth movement of the era to remind us that the champion had demographics on his side as he came into public view.
The early part of the book is also where Erenberg makes some of his most interesting macro-historical analyses of the cultural meaning of the fight, noting that “[a]lthough many of the fight’s themes were rooted in the 1960s, the fact that the match occurred in 1974 requires that we pay attention to the 1970s as a turning point in American culture.” (7) Erenberg does an excellent job tying the fight to the particular developments of that decade, far better than most previous authors, who tend to locate Ali in the 1960s or the 1990s.
But Erenberg’s insight into the well-worn ground of Ali’s impact on the 1960s is also worthwhile. He locates Ali at the nexus of the antiwar movement, Black freedom struggle, and youth movement of the era to remind us that the champion had demographics on his side as he came into public view. Ali lent manliness and Blackness to an antiwar movement thought to be lacking in both, Erenberg concludes.
Foreman gets the same treatment, framed first as a product of the 1960s and then beyond that. Erenberg smartly situates the Job Corps, for example, where Foreman began his personal turnaround from street fighter into amateur boxer, as an outcropping of contemporary debates around liberalism and feminism. Erenberg also provides a few anecdotes reminding readers that long before he started selling grilling machines, George Foreman had what it takes to appeal to mainstream White America.
The next three chapters, truly well-sourced and well-written, constitute the impressive heart of the book and cover the runup to the fight, the accompanying Zaire ’74 music festival, and the waiting period that resulted from the match’s weeks-long delay due to an injury to Foreman’s eye. In this section, Erenberg unearths a significant amount of exciting material about, for example, the telecommunications aspects of the fight’s worldwide satellite broadcast and the U.S. government’s view of the intrigue surrounding the bout’s postponement.
Noteworthy is the amount of depth Erenberg affords Zairian leader Mobutu Sese Seko, who did not, by the way, approve of the label “Rumble in the Jungle.” Most Ali commentaries frame Mobutu as a sadistic kleptocrat who naively spent his poor nation’s few millions on a vanity project. A popular opinion is that the bout was a total failure for Mobutu and the people of Zaire, but Erenberg explains Mobutu’s motivations for hosting the bout, right down to his insistence on holding it in Mai 20 Stadium.
Erenberg argues convincingly, backed solidly with evidence, that the event went as hoped for Zaire’s people and leader. “Just pulling off such a colossal gamble…in the face of widespread doubt and constant criticism caused many Zairois officials and ordinary citizens to proclaim that the big winner of the Super Fight of the Century was ‘Zaire itself,’” writes Erenberg. He continues, “Not only did the match come off; the fight itself and Ali’s dramatic victory helped put the nation on the map, promoted its image at home and abroad, and helped legitimate Mobutu’s Popular Movement for the Revolution party for a long time to come.” (187) Erenberg also provides source material showing that other African nations admired Zaire for the bout and saw it as a triumph.
A popular opinion is that the bout was a total failure for Mobutu and the people of Zaire, but Erenberg explains Mobutu’s motivations for hosting the bout, right down to his insistence on holding it in Mai 20 Stadium.
In a number of passages, at times with more success than others, the author compares Ali to contemporary people and phenomena. For example: “Just as the odds were stacked against Ali in his last shot at the title, so too were the odds against a developing Black African nation such as Zaire pulling it off without a hitch.” (187) Another example: “As did his idol Ali, [James] Brown put the Black body on display in all its power, aggressiveness, and sexual potency.” (109)
One of the richest such sketches is when Erenberg compares the Rumble in the Jungle to the Vietnam War, with the undefeated Foreman as the United States, confident in his heavy firepower as a guarantor of victory. Ali, on the other hand, “managed to transform Zaire into his home field and stun his powerful foe to achieve an upset victory. Much like the Viet Cong and its North Vietnamese allies, Ali surprised the world—not only by winning but by winning so convincingly that the whole idea of victory culture was placed in doubt. Using an impenetrable defense, the challenger unleashed just enough sneaky offense to weaken Foreman’s resolve … At the same time, Foreman proved incapable of winning the support of the Zairois people.” (184)
Erenberg’s look at the long aftermath of the bout also yields some important new perspective. He suggests that Zaire was one of the last triumphs of the 1960s, and after that “the religious and political themes of [Ali’s] bouts were beginning to wane.” He notes that, “As a global hero because of his politics, Ali’s international bouts allowed him to trade on his nonwhite status without having to put much effort into emphasizing the point.” (199)
But just as Zaire did not define Ali permanently, it also did not ruin Foreman, even if in the couple of years following the bout he was engulfed in an all-encompassing depression that might have led to suicide. But it was Foreman, the flag-waving Olympian, not Ali the fisherman for Elijah Muhammad and conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, who would go on to a legitimate career as a minister of religion. It was Foreman, not Ali, who would become the division’s ultimate comeback kid, recapturing the title in 1994, just short of his forty-sixth birthday. Ali, meanwhile, was hammered into oblivion at the age of thirty-eight when he tried to recapture the title from Larry Holmes fourteen years earlier. And in the ensuing decades, it would be Ali who would become silent and introspective as Foreman became gregarious and witty.
… just as Zaire did not define Ali permanently, it also did not ruin Foreman, even if in the couple of years following the bout he was engulfed in an all-encompassing depression that might have led to suicide.
Erenberg duly notes the similarities between the men as well. A decade after the bout, both would be in relatively bad health, a degree of financial disrepair, and dealing with personal upheaval. Twenty-five years after the bout, though, both would be beloved American icons, wealthy and respected pitchmen selling the most popular brands to middle America, the negritude that both men traded in during the 1970s replaced by an appeal to color blindness and universal humanity, not to mention the dollars each man had always pursued relentlessly, anyway.