Michael Mann’s recreation of The Rumble in the Jungle is my favorite boxing scene in all of film. Mann’s insistence on mimicry is a big reason why, as much of the fight in Ali is executed exactly how the bout happened in real life. But moreover, it’s the emotion of Mann’s scene that sticks with me. Throughout the fight, we’re privy to Muhammad Ali’s inner monologue, a monologue the fighter never shared in real life. Ali famously kept his strategy for battling George Foreman a secret. Many suspect this was because he didn’t know how to beat Foreman; he would have to face Foreman first to determine a resolute tactic.
“Legs heavy. Air heavy. Like I’m in water,” Ali tells us after Round 1. According to Ali, in the 60 seconds between Rounds 1 and 2, he decided to completely change his strategy against Foreman. He gave up his typical dancing style and opted to lean against the ropes until Foreman punched himself out, which would later become known as the rope-a-dope.
Context: George Foreman was a fucking beast. He was bigger, younger and stronger than Ali. Foreman could render a heavy bag useless after using it only once. That’s how strong he was. Most punching bags last professional fighters months, not mere hours. So, for Muhammad Ali to let Foreman pummel Ali for several rounds was dangerous bordering on insanity.
This goes on for several rounds, until the break between Rounds 7 and 8, when Ali, through his inner monologue, hints what is to come. “Can’t let you get that second wind which you don’t even know is there for you. You want the title? Want to wear the heavyweight crown? Nose broke, jaw smashed, face busted in. You ready for that? Is that you? Cause you facing a man who will die before he lets you win.”
When I saw Ali in the theater, I didn’t know what round Ali knocked Foreman out. (Hell, I probably didn’t even know Ali knocked Foreman out.) But I’ll never forget being in the theater, sitting next to my dad, and the moment my old man saw the ring lady hold up the Round 8 sign, my dad let out a quiet, “Ohhhh.” He knew what was coming.
And then it happens. Ali pushes Foreman away and delivers the best, most calculated combination of punches in the history of professional boxing. Mann, and his genius cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, wisely execute the flurry in slow motion. If you watch the real fight, Ali’s punches are damn near too fast for the human eye to pick up on.
Once Foreman has “fallen like a tree in the forest” as Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) exclaims, the crowd goes ape shit. Mann’s camera finds Ali’s wife (Nona Gaye), his mistress (Michael Michele), Don King (Mykelti Williamson), and Elijah Muhammad’s son (Barry Shabaka Henley), but the final person the camera lands on is Angelo Dundee, who is silently, patiently waiting for Foreman to be officially knocked out. Silver’s determined expression always brings tears to my eyes. It’s my single favorite moment in the film. Followed by my second favorite moment, when Voight exuberantly yells “It is over! It is over!” as the ref ends the fight. Ali raises his hands in victory, and the battle is over.
Bereda was born and raised in Ethiopia, and the film’s concluding segment in Africa meant a lot to him. He would often get emotional watching Ali run through the streets of Zaire, happy that his homeland was portrayed in a positive light. Muhammad Ali was one of my personal heroes – I loved what he stood and how he stood for it – and any excuse to watch Ali was a good enough one for me.
Bereda and I got drunk beforehand (it was college), and when we entered the theater, we were stunned to find that we were all alone. But, being alone, we took it upon ourselves to drunkenly act out as much of the film as we could. Between hidden pops of Southern Comfort (again, college), we would yell lines at the screen and throw phantom punches during the fights. During Ali’s slow motion knockout of Foreman, Bereda and I stood up and imitated the blows beat-for-beat. We laughed as we counted down with the ref, and I excitedly screamed, “It is over!” with Jon Voight.
When the movie was done, we pulled ourselves together, crying with laughter. And then we saw her. We saw a professor from the communications department slowly walk down the aisle toward us. She had been sitting in the back row of the theater the entire time. We had no idea she was there, and we were absolutely mortified. As she walked up to us, I apologized profusely. (In moments like these, it was understood that my silver tongue would do its best to atone, while Bereda would stay virtually silent.) I finally asked why she didn’t tell us to shut up at any point during the film. “Fellas,” she said, “You don’t understand. You were infinitely more entertaining than the movie.”