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The Rumble in the Jungle By Lewis Erenberg

Release date: 04th June, 2019
Publisher: University of Chicago Press

List Price: Ł30.00
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Stellar boxing promoter Don King rarely, if ever, let the opportunity to deliver a well-practised promotional line get in the way of the truth, as the opening quote in Lewis Erenberg’s Rumble in the Jungle proves.

“Two great warriors will return to the heart of the Motherland. It’s goin’ home time. It is destiny,” said the wiry-haired King in an attempt to add a cultural sheen to the classic 1974 world heavyweight title fight between George Foreman and Muhammed Ali .

In truth, King had signed separate contracts with both men promising them $5 million apiece ($25 million each in 2017 terms), money he didn’t have. Instead , he sought a national sponsor capable of stumping up the cash and when that happened to be Mobutu Sese Seko, renowned kleptomaniac and incumbent dictator of Zaire, King recognised the commercial merit in emphasising the fact that his warriors were returning to “the Motherland”.

There’s little doubt that the 1974 contest was, from a tactical perspective, one of the very best heavyweight title fights ever staged, pitching the undefeated Foreman, then 25, against Ali, 32, a man seemingly on the slide – he was priced at 4/1 to win – with a dramatic, steaming jungle acting as a backdrop. The fight was preceded by a three-day/night music festival featuring stars such as James Brown, B.B. King and Bill Withers and an uber-hyped build-up which surpassed anything the boxing game had ever seen. It was a global event.

It could be argued that Erenberg has fallen for Don King’s cultural references at face value by suggesting that the fight “transcended boxing and sport itself.”

“The match,” he writes, “carried deep personal meanings for both combatants…[and] represented a turning point in American culture.”

Erenberg writes well and his comprehensively-researched book considers the influence of music, marketing and global communication on a contest that represented a commercial turning point, grossing $100 million worldwide (screened by the BBC, it attracted a UK audience of 26 million).

Yet dividing the degree of pre- and post-fight hype (King) from the contest’s longer-term cultural implications (Erenberg) is a task for those with plenty of time on their hands. In the meantime, Norman Mailer’s The Fight remains the definitive account of the Rumble in the Jungle.

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