KINSHASA (Reuters) - “It was total madness,” said Augustin Lisoya, now maintenance director at Kinshasa’s Tata Raphael stadium, recalling the night in 1974 that he watched Muhammad Ali knock out George Foreman there before some 60,000 fans.
“When Muhammad Ali sent George Foreman to the floor, there was an outbreak of joy from the people of Kinshasa and from all of the Congolese people,” says Lisoya, standing in the dimly-lit bowels of the now-decaying stadium where he witnessed the “Rumble in the Jungle”.
Many in Kinshasa this Saturday were not yet aware of Ali’s death but as the news spread across the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo - formerly known as Zaire - tributes began to flood in for a man who brought global prestige to the central African nation that adopted him as one of its own.
His victory over world heavyweight champion George Foreman was arguably the highlight of a career immortalised in the Academy Award-winning documentary “When We Were Kings”.
“Zaire became very well known,” said Ingali Muzembo, a local official at Congo’s national sports federation. “When people talked about Zaire, everyone was talking about ‘the fight of the century.’”
The fight, hyped for months in the media and scheduled for 4 a.m. local time for maximum television exposure in the United States, attracted some of the world’s most prominent journalists and celebrities to a country known by most westerners only for its periodic bouts of instability.
The local crowds overwhelmingly supported the outspoken, proudly black Ali against the more reserved Foreman, who, although black himself, seemed to many a symbol of the white establishment.
“(Ali) was an African. He was a Congolese,” said David Madiawi, a salesman on Kinshasa’s Avenue de Commerce. “He came to Congo to return to the land of his ancestors.”
Indeed, the crowds inside Tata Raphael for the fight cheered Ali on with cries of “Ali, boma ye!”, or “Ali, kill him!” in the local Lingala language.
At a time when Zaire’s authoritarian leader Mobutu Sese Seko was pushing his policy of “authenticity”, which called on Zaireans to renounce Western names and clothing for “homegrown” alternatives, many sensed parallels in Ali’s own iconclasm, including his changing of his name from Cassius Clay following his conversion to Islam.
After the fight, boxing rivalled soccer for a time as Zaire’s most popular sport, Kinshasa residents said, although its popularity has faded along with memories of 1974 and as young boxers struggle to find financial support.
But even four decades later, memories of that October night remain vivid. Richard Lubaka, who at 15 watched the fight live in the stadium, dramatically fell to the sidewalk, re-enacting Foreman’s decisive eighth-round tumble.
“I didn’t believe that Ali could defeat Foreman because Foreman trained with a sack of cement. He killed live animals!” Lubaka said. “Ali wasn’t strong. But technically, he was brilliant.”
Editing by Marine Pennetier and Ruth Pitchford
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