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Jungle still rumbles when talk turns to Ali

Published Oct 25, 2004

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By Andrew Gray

Kinshasa - Nothing on the damp-infested walls or among the dirty terraces declares that this was the scene of one of the world's greatest sporting confrontations.

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Even the stadium's name has changed since that day 30 years ago this week when it hosted the "Rumble in the Jungle", the world championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa which was much more than just a boxing match.

With no monument or plaque to recall Ali's huge upset win, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo - formerly Zaire - have to rely on their own memories of that night.

"We were great fans of boxing and everyone loved Muhammad Ali," said Jermain Badianjela, a Congolese boxer, standing in the stadium where he watched the bout and the eighth-round knock-out.

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"It was packed. I've never seen anything like it," said Pierre Mambele, a taxi driver looking across to the terracing where he stood 30 years ago as tens of thousands chanted for the challenger with cries of "Ali boma ye" - "Ali kill him".

The venue was called the Stade du 20 Mai at the time of Ali and Foreman's heavyweight duel, after the founding date of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's political movement.

After the ousting and death in 1997 of the man with a taste in brutal repression and leopard-skin hats, the stadium has reverted to the name of Tata Raphael, a Belgian priest who did youth work in Congo and built the original structure.

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But it was Mobutu who brought the championship bout to his sprawling capital city on the lush banks of the Congo river.

His government supplied most of the $10-million (about R60-million) purse Don King, then at the beginning of his promoting career, needed to make sure Ali and Foreman fought each other.

With King and Ali involved, the match was never going to be short of hype. But Mobutu ensured his nation was in a state of frenzy, distributing posters across this vast country - Africa's third-largest - and filling state media with coverage.

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"He made everyone aware of it," said Kabeya Tshibwabwa, a maintenance manager at the dilapidated stadium, as a few dozen people watched a women's football match on the sparse pitch.

"Everybody was talking about it day and night."

The stadium is one of many buildings in the former Zaire whose best days look long gone. A bare bulb casts only faint light into the dingy entrance hall, a pool of water from the leaking roof has flooded what was once Foreman's dressing room.

The panel which bore a giant portrait of Mobutu staring down on the fight now carries a billboard for a Chinese telephone firm. "To serve the people," reads the slogan.

With the country's vast mineral resources fetching high prices on international markets and the West bankrolling him in its global battle with communism, Mobutu had money to lavish on his country - as well as himself - in 1974.

"The city of Kinshasa was like a garden," said Nicola Bianco, an Italian restaurateur who has lived in Congo since 1959 and was among the crowd of more than 60 000 at the fight.

"Everyone was all dressed up," said Bianco, sitting at a table in the corner of his restaurant. "The atmosphere was beautiful, I've never felt an atmosphere like it."

The event was also billed as a major festival of black Americans returning to their roots. Musicians such as James Brown and BB King played concerts along with African artists in the stadium as part of the build-up to the fight.

Not even an injury to Foreman a few days before the originally scheduled date of September 25, forcing a postponement to October 30, could spoil the atmosphere.

"It was 42 days of celebrations in Congo," said Bianco, before digging out a folder with black and white photographs of the fight to revive more memories.

For the Italian, the Rumble in the Jungle recalls a time when Kinshasa felt like a stop on the international jet-set circuit rather than a largely forgotten Third World capital. Messrs. Nixon, Kissinger and even Pele all visited the city.

But the state was starting to fall apart long before Mobutu was forced out.

A five-year war which ended in 2003 killed some three million people, mainly through hunger and disease, and pushed the country of more than 50 million people further into poverty.

Ordinary Congolese scrape by on about $100 (about R600) per year while members of the elite enjoy the benefits of power Mobutu once held, gliding around the Grand Hotel where Foreman stayed.

Even the hotel has seen better days, though. It used to be an Intercontinental.

The worn deep blue-green decor, the crazy patterns on the curtains and the fake wood-panelled televisions suggest it has not been spruced up since Foreman was there.

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