THE original plan was bold, the open-sky venue vast, the dialogue legend, the money crazy, the fight was the Rumble in the Jungle and now there is a rematch in South London. Where else, bruv?
Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Angelo Dundee, David Frost, Dick Saddler, Archie Moore are all led through 55-days in Zaire by Don King. A crowd of about 600 are there to get sucker punched, there to leave their memories at the door and party like it is 1974. OK, I nicked the last bit from the promotional line. It’s immersive theatre, it is also one of our truly holy nights. Don’t ruin it, was the message. They leave it sacred; they add to the wonder in parts, trust me.
The venue in 2023 is a warehouse by the Thames. It is, obviously, transformed. The sights and the smells, beers and food of the original Rumble are there. The show is smart, it feels and looks good. The night I went was hot and that added to the mood. Seventies clobber was everywhere.
The converted venue had the feel, it was When We Were Kings, it was the Rumble in the Jungle – it is a quality makeover, and there is a lot going on. The message is clear: get involved, be part of the great night.
Walk from area to area, talk with Don King (in profile, he is a dead ringer) and get interviewed by a roving and manic and quite brilliant, David Frost. King shadows the action at the conferences and days of waiting in the gyms and hotels; Frost is at the centre of the action, pursuing Dick Saddler through a crowd of fans, asking questions, probing for answers. “Dick, Dick,” he asks. “How bad is the eye?” Saddler tries to escape from Frost’s questions, curious fans block his exit. Go and get sucked in.
And then James Brown takes to the stage. It’s a real party then. At one point I stood back and looked at the three or four bars and food stations – hotdogs in the American hotel, traditional food from local outlets, African beer and cocktails – and watched about four hundred people dancing. There was Frost interviewing, King bellowing, Foreman rushing through a crowd with Archie Moore and Saddler in hot pursuit. The Rumble was alive in all the corners and shadows of that converted space. There were dancing women bearing curses and local police keeping order.
“It’s not even started yet,” warned Trevor Beattie in a conspiratorial whisper. “Just wait, the Rumble is coming.” And then he was gone. Beattie is listed as a ‘contributor’. His Ali Collection and Ali knowledge is legend; Trevor is also the link to Ali and his wife, Lonnie. This is not another disgraceful ram-raid on the great man’s soul. The real Ali business will benefit.
It opened to the public last week, tickets start from 35 quid, it’s a minute from Canada Water tube. It’s a zillion miles from life, the Thames/Congo River beats just over the next paved walkway, a silent dark moving reminder of the fight’s original location. It is a fitting venue for a night of dreaming for boxing fans. Go there and drift, please. It runs to the end of October, there will be an extension to December; it will go on the road with stops in New York and Las Vegas. I want to see Gene Kilroy and George Foreman with walk-on roles in the American leg. That is a fantasy inside a rumble, inside a magic trick.
The arena for the fight seats about 700 and when it fills, the tension grows, Frost keeps up a grainy line in commentary, joined for a moment by Joe Frazier. There is a giant screen behind the ring. I will not give too much away, but the way the fight is done is quality. It lasts the right length, it is perfect, the best staged fight ever. Well, it had to be – the original was perfection. There are a few cute production tricks, and they work. The actual fight footage is a breathtaking reminder of the incredible action. It is also a reminder of the forgotten cinema experience that thousands watched live all over the globe.
Watching it again, watching with hundreds of screaming people, watching with people who had never seen it before and seeing the joy on their faces when Ali won was a delight. There was genuine shock, real drama as Foreman fell in a heap in that half circle as Ali pirouetted clear of the toppling. Imagine spending two hours following the story and knowing that Ali could not win, and then sitting and watching the impossible happen. How lucky are those first-timers.
There was no room in that temporary theatre of dreams, a converted sanctuary for the faithful, on the outskirts of Bermondsey for cynics or purists; it was just a raw crowd at a great fight. You do know that there was real magic at the finish, a spell to change the world. Ali was a magician and his greatest magic trick, as George Kimball wrote, was in that ring just before the African dawn and the storms. A sleight of hand to make Foreman, the monster, disappear.
And at the end, with the arena emptying and Ali off, buried under a thousand relieved hugs, it was just big George left in the ring. There is more than just one storm on the horizon. He is troubled, he knows what has happened will haunt him for the rest of his life. In the Rumble Rematch, the big lad finally gets the floor. It is a lovely end. Another magical twist on a night of pure wonder.