American boxing legend Muhammad Ali had a deep connection with Africa: the continent’s fighting spirit influenced his own articulate political and spiritual philosophy. Ali also fought his greatest fight in Africa – the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” – and was a close friend of Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter and another iconic boxer.
Ali and Africa
There is no doubt that Ali identified strongly with Africa and its people. From an early age, as a descendant of African slaves, Ali looked to the continent to help define his unique identity and form his strong political and spiritual convictions.
For Africans, Muhammad Ali’s appeal went far beyond the boxing ring: he was a strong black role model during a time when there were none, at least not as high- profile as he was.
As an early champion of black consciousness, Ali’s outspokenness on war, racism and inequality made him more than just a boxer, it made him a symbol of power and hope. He inspired generations of Africans to not only take up the sport, but also to make a defiant stand against injustice.
Ali, the fighter in Africa
— oneinonepointfour (@Shabs_i_r) June 4, 2016
When Ali arrived for his fight against George Foreman in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1974, he was greeted by thousands as a returning African son.
Throughout his time in the country, he was followed everywhere by adoring fans, including youngsters chanting what would become Ali’s unofficial African fight song: “Ali Bomaye!”
The fight itself was a spectacle, a down-to-the-wire battle between the era’s best fighters inside a brutally hot Kinshasa stadium filled to the brim with over 60 000 people. Ali and Foreman both gave as good as each got, but it was Ali who triumphed with one of his trademark knockout blows in the eighth round to conclude what many call “the greatest sporting event of the 20th century”.
The fight and Ali’s trip to Africa became the basis for a number of films, including Michael Mann’s Ali, starring Will Smith as Ali. It was also celebrated in literary works, such as Norman Mailer’s The Fight, and by other great sport writers of the era, including George Plimpton and Hunter S Thompson.
The Rumble in the Jungle brought Africa to a worldwide audience for the first time in the modern era, all helped by the iconic status of Ali.
Ali and Mandela
Nelson Mandela, a former boxer himself, had always been a big fan of Muhammad Ali, calling him his personal hero and keeping a photo of Ali in his office as inspiration. The feeling was mutual. When Mandela was released from prison Ali rushed to meet him, calling him a “fellow freedom fighter, both in and out the ring”.
Upon Mandela’s release Ali travelled to South Africa to greet his brother; a freedom fighter in&out of the ring too. pic.twitter.com/Y8j4g7rGzy
— Beauty’sOnlySkinDeep (@BlackPearlMoi) June 5, 2016
The two met regularly over the years, and together used their influence as living legends to draw attention to many shared charitable causes – including HIV/Aids and poverty awareness – as well as to strengthen Africa’s presence in the rest of the world.
Nelson Mandela kept a photo of Muhammad Ali on his desk. He was Mandela’s hero, says the Mandela Foundation pic.twitter.com/0etqMUuU8p
— Shreeya Sinha (@ShreeyaSinha) June 4, 2016
On the day Mandela died in 2013, Ali eulogised him as “a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge. He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale.”
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