Like a black Jay Gatsby with a bulging build, Muhammad Ali's special radiance in his championship years came from his ability to realize his wildest dreams. Nobody expected that his attention-grabbing line "I am the greatest" would prove to be the expression of a pride so enormous and enduring. When Ali started out, few boxing experts foresaw that the brash kid from Louisville would transform the face of the sport: He held his hands too low, he pranced around with his chin out, he always moved clockwise, and he seemed too pretty to dominate nastier heavyweights like Sonny Liston. But Ali's beauty and grace outclassed '60s hard-guy chic, and he used his brain to integrate his bad habits into a style so fast and fluid that it transcended accepted notions of "good" and "bad" boxing. He created such a deep impression of being an irresistible force that even when he started to lose his limber moves and precision -- and a couple of his fights -- you had to wonder whether his body was shot, or whether he had a secret need to lend darker, melancholy colors to his fame. In a Boston Globe column I clipped after Ali's 15-round decision over Alfredo Evangelista in Landover, Md., Leigh Montville wrote that "there is always doubt" after a sloppy Ali fight like the Laugher in Landover; "There always is the feeling that Ali knows something that he simply isn't telling anyone."
Athletic feats are often described as poetry in motion; an Ali fight, good or terrible, was an act of imagination that the imaginer worked out before our eyes. That was never more the case than with his most astonishing triumph, the "Rumble in the Jungle" -- the Oct. 30, 1974, title bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, that climaxes Leon Gast's exuberant and thrilling documentary When We Were Kings. Gast has the help of Ali's 1991 biographer, Thomas Hauser, and eyewitnesses Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who appear in period clips and recent interviews. They remind us that sportswriters considered the 32-year-old Ali hopelessly mismatched against the 26-year-old Foreman (then the surly opposite of today's affable late-night TV fixture). The conventional wisdom was that Ali had rushed his comeback after his 3-1/2-year suspension from boxing for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. After his 1970 return, Ali endured grueling bouts with Ken Norton and Joe Frazier (winning and losing one from each); during the same period, Foreman, a powerful puncher with his own Jurassic Park agility, routed both. In the superb cutting between Gast's shot-in-Zaire footage and the interviews with the experts, we get to hear Mailer describe Foreman punching an indentation the size of a watermelon into the heavy bag, and then see Foreman doing it; you understand why Ali, walking into the same palatial training hall in President Mobutu's compound, kept his eyes averted from this ominous spectacle. (Taylor Hackford directed the '90s interviews and pitched in on their editing.)
Still, Ali had an inner strength and shrewdness that confounded close advisers and adamant foes alike. And he had a sense of occasion. From the start Ali recognized the historic importance of holding the prizefight in Africa and proclaimed his journey there a homecoming. Foreman treated it as little more than a grand setting for the defense of his title -- an ironic gaffe, because Foreman, too, had a shamanlike magnetism. (With typical accuracy and daring, Mailer says that Foreman embodied "negritude, this huge black force.") Gast's coup is to show Ali's public persona turning into his secret weapon. Even in an America that pilloried Ali for becoming a Black Muslim and saying "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger," Ali moved through years of exile with poise, as if he knew his black magic could overcome unjust rulings. In When We Were Kings, by the time he reaches Zaire, Third World fans are ready to embrace him as an African-Islamic god. When a sparring partner's elbow bloodies Foreman and the fight must be postponed for six weeks, Ali overcomes his anxiety partly by drawing on the fervor of his local followers. "Ali, bomaye" -- "Ali, kill him" -- becomes their battle cry.
Ali's range of emotions, from tenderness to tantrums, always confused his more hard-skinned opponents. One of the film's producers, David Sonenberg, has dubbed Ali "The Original Rapper," but he also was to pugilism what Leonard Bernstein was to conducting: a mixture of the genuine and histrionic who made beautiful music with his hands. And his mojo was at its pinnacle in the gladiatorial ring outside Kinshasa, perhaps because, as Gast suggests, it harmonized with the magic and the rolling percussive rhythms of the Dark Continent. The former Cleveland numbers czar and ex-con Don King, who arranged the fight in an ebullient bid for prominence as well as wealth, sponsored a three-day musical concert in Zaire featuring both African and African-American musicians, from James Brown to Miriam Makeba. In the movie, Ali fits into this context; Foreman doesn't. We see Ali impatiently awaiting the arrival of Brown and B.B. King, and explaining that white music is different from rhythm and blues because white men generally don't have the experience of women leaving them because they don't have any money. (He tells the white men interviewing him off-camera that their music is more like "the train comes round the mountain, y'all come, y'all come.") Ali also builds performance art into his own presentation. Scan one of his poems on the page and it's apt to read like bright, wise-ass doggerel: "I done wrassled with an alligator/ I done tussled with a whale/ Only last week I murdered a rock/ Injured a stone/ Hospitalized a brick/ I'm so mean I make medicine sick." See him spit it out to an audience and it becomes electrifying -- an expression of a capering yet purposeful personality, a man who follows his own internal beat. And in Africa, he and the people pulse as one.
Gast doesn't bother to set scenes or mark out timelines, and his impressionistic approach has its drawbacks. The performances, B.B. King doing "Sweet Sixteen" or James Brown on "Gonna Have a Funky Good Time," are there only for flavor or thematic effect. You don't learn, for example, whether the concert goes on as planned despite the fight delay caused by Foreman's sparring accident. One reason that Mailer registers so strongly -- he's virtually the film's third lead -- is that he's such a terrific organizer and interpreter of facts. He fills us in on the strong-arm rule of the dictator Mobutu, who, determined to prove Zaire safe, crammed the dungeons beneath the stadium with criminals weeks before the fight, and (it is said) arbitrarily executed a tenth of them. And Mailer explains the nuances of Ali's training regimen, the way Ali educated his body to "read" punches -- "these messages of punishment" -- and absorb them ever more rapidly. During the match itself, it's a gratifying display of journalistic prowess to hear Mailer describe the signs of fear and renewed determination in Ali's face, and then see them for ourselves. Mailer's and Plimpton's slack-jawed astonishment heightens our own when Ali comes out slugging though the smart money said he'd dance all night. The ex-champ regains his crown by piling on a dozen perilous right-hand leads, then lying back on the ropes (in the soon-to-be-famous "rope-a-dope" technique), goading Foreman into punching himself out before applying his own knockout punches. "The sweet science" of boxing doesn't get sweeter than this.
When We Were Kings is at its most exciting when Gast conjures up mysterious presences in the shadow of the ring, especially when he expands on the story of a soothsayer prophesying that Foreman would be visited by a woman with trembling hands -- a succubus -- who would drain the champ of his power. To insinuate that kind of otherworldly entity, Gast repeatedly imposes concert portraits of Miriam Makeba at her most possessed: when Foreman gets bloodied during training, when George Plimpton tells the story of the succubus, and at the end of the fight, when the prophecy seems to have come true. By then, you feel that a victory as marvelous as Ali's must have drawn on unseen forces. Gast's movie does equal justice to the pragmatism and mysticism of Ali's boxing career. In When We Were Kings it's a formidable one-two combination.