Reviews

When We Were Kings

5

Undeniably deserving its Best Documentary Oscar, When We Were Kings tells - superbly - the story of what is almost certainly Muhammad Ali's greatest fight (and thus, arguably, the greatest boxing match ever). The year is 1974 and America, still reeling from sweaty Tricky Dicky Nixon's resignation, gears itself up for what's been billed (in a typically subtle moment of boxing understatement) as "The Fight Of The Century". The heavyweight boxing champion of the world is George Foreman, a 25-year-old powerhouse with a killer punch; the challenger is former champ Muhammad Ali, now 32 years old and hungry to regain his crown. Naturally, with Don King (he of the loo-brush barnet) as promoter, the hype is non-stop, ably assisted by an absurd location (as personally agreed by the President of Zaire); a "purse" like a sack (the fighters are offered $5 million apiece to face each other); and an associated big-name music festival - headlined by BB King and James Brown.

What makes director Leon Gast's great documentary so electrifying is that it manages to convey (using tightly edited footage and direct-to-camera anecdotes from Norman Mailer, Spike Lee et al) the overwhelming sense that something monumental is happening. More than just another big-bloke punch-up, the fight was about a country putting itself on the map, and about a gifted sportsman simultaneously rediscovering his roots and facing the toughest challenge of his career.

Hence When We Were Kings is a film as much about Ali as about boxing. The erstwhile Cassius Clay comes across as a likeable man - big of heart, sharp of wit and devastating of right jab. Yet Gast cleverly manages to reveal the mortal lurking behind the "black superman" too: Ali's tangible frustration when rival Foreman cuts his eye and the fight is postponed just adds to the build-up.

Two quibbles. Firstly, Gast could have spent more time with Foreman for a bit more balance. Secondly... it ends.

Film Details

  • PG
  • UK Theatrical Release Date: May 16th 1997

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