KINSHASA, October 2004 – When a guest at a plush dinner in Geneva asked where Kinshasa was, she set off a chain of events that led to one of the world’s great sporting showdowns.
Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko was furious his fellow diner was ignorant of the country’s capital. When he had calmed down, he asked Frederic Weymar, a German-American financier also at the dinner: “What can we do to make my city known?”
Weymar replied: “You need the Olympic Games”. The remark drew laughter at the time but as he took his leave, the dictator famous for his leopard-skin hats told Weymar: “If you have an idea along those lines … call the head of my office.”
Weymar did have an idea, recalled Hans Buchhold, one of the financier’s lieutenants at the dinner in 1973. It was to get Muhammad Ali and George Foreman to fight in the city for the world heavyweight title, with Zaire providing the purse.
Buchhold spent 10 months in Kinshasa helping turn the idea into reality as technical and logistics director for the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the fight held 30 years ago on Saturday.
Although promoter Don King gained huge kudos from the fight, Buchhold says the financier also deserves credit.
“Weymar had the idea and he also had the line to Mobutu,” Buchhold said in an interview with Reuters, puffing on a cigar at Kinshasa’s Grand Hotel. He lived at the hotel along with many others preparing for the bout, including Foreman.
It was much more than just a fight. Black American artists such as James Brown played concerts with African musicians as part of the build-up and the whole event was hailed as a festival of African Americans returning to their roots.
The three decades since have not been kind to the country now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Economic decline and a war that killed some three million people – mainly through hunger and disease – have taken a heavy toll.
“A boxing match like that couldn’t be organised here today,” said Buchhold, a German who decided to make his home in Kinshasa after the fight and a five-month holiday to recover from the stress. “Today, there is no state.”
Weymar’s company raised $60 million to stage the Ali-Foreman bout and negotiated the television and sponsorship deals needed to make the money back and more, Buchhold said.
Setting up such a major event in an African country involved everything from building a $29 million satellite base station to spending $4 million on air tickets, he recalled.
The fight was seen as a spectacular success, although some argue it helped perpetuate Mobutu’s corrupt and repressive rule by giving him a domestic and international image boost.
Ali’s eighth round knockout against an opponent many considered unbeatable was one of the great victories in boxing.
Organisers claimed a television audience of 1.7 billion, the third highest behind the coronation of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and the moon landings.
However, the Rumble in the Jungle could have ended up better known as the Financial Disaster in Kinshasa.
“It nearly came to catastrophe,” Buchhold said.
Minutes after Ali knocked down Foreman, a tropical storm burst over the city, causing a short-circuit at the stadium.
If the fight had still been going, coverage would have been blacked out and television companies would not have paid up for the broadcast rights, Buchhold said.
It could have been a calamity too if Foreman had beaten Ali, fanatically supported by more than 100,000 Zaireans in the stadium and millions more around the country, Buchhold believes.
“If Foreman had won, we wouldn’t have got out of the stadium alive,” he said.
(c) Reuters News