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Ali’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ still resonates in Kinshasa

Ali, who died on Friday aged 74, held the whole world spellbound when he took on the massive undefeated world heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman in the capital of what was then Zaire.

Ali knocked the big man down at the end of round eight in one of the sporting upsets of the 20th century.

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In doing so he inspired a whole nation.

“We spent all our youth with Muhammad Ali. He was the one who shaped us,” explained former amateur boxer Kavuala.

“He had a particular style. When he was in the ring, you see that dancing with his feet, that held us all spellbound.”

Ali’s exploits in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo inspired a generation.

“He was a model for us,” said Kavuala.

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Ali was already a hero in Africa — he was treated as royalty when he first set foot on the continent, in Ghana, in 1964,

Ten years later it was the then dictator Mobutu who wanted to bring “the fight of the century” to Zaire.

“We were afraid more than anything. Frankly if Muhammad Ali had been beaten here in the Congo, there would have been total mourning in Zaire and throughout Africa,” said Kavuala.

– “Foreman was much stronger” -Timba Kabwe, now 65, had already founded his boxing club in the north of Kinshasa when the two great American boxers flew in for the fight.

He was one of the many “healers” who accompanied Ali during the weeks he spent in the Congo and watched the fight just a few metres from the ring in what is now the Tata-Rafael stadium.

“Foreman was much stronger. When he hit, he hurt,” but in the eighth round “Ali sensed that his opponent was getting tired. He gave him two blows to the face, here and there,” he said, touching his and chin and temple.

“Foreman spun round and collapsed.”

Kavuala watched the fight on a big screen erected at the Kamina aviation school in the southeastern town of Katanga.

The fight began in the middle of the night, for the benefit of US television, and right after Ali’s victory the heavens opened.

“It was like a shower of blessings,” said Kavuala.

Both he and Kabwe spoke of feeling like guardians of Congolese history.

“With the death of Muhammad Ali a part of history is buried,” said Kavuala.

Kabwe remembers the “presidential suite” which Ali occupied on the eighth floor of the Intercontinental hotel.

The hotel has since also had a name change and the young receptionist there had never even heard of Ali.

The Tata-Rafael stadium is now crumbling, an acrid smell emanating from a pile of burning waste in a corner.

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