I won $4.00 betting on Muhammad Ali when he fought the pre-grill George Foreman for all the marbles in the wee hours of a 1974 Zaire morning. This was a time when most white kids would regularly root for Ali to lose…so I took advantage of such nonsense and put my money on The Greatest.
Today, as we approach the 30th anniversary of what became known as the "Rumble in the Jungle," far more is known about the boxers (and a certain promoter named Don King who got his start in Zaire) than the venue.
The Congo gained independence from Belgium in June 1960. Within three months, the CIA helped overthrow the African nation’s first Prime Minister, the charismatic and legally elected socialist, Patrice Lumumba.
"Lumumba attempted to steer a neutral course between the U.S. and the USSR-no easy task," says author Mark Zepezauer.
Captured with CIA help in December 1960, Lumumba was "held prisoner for over a month, interrogated, tortured, then finally shot in the head," Zepezauer adds. "His body was dissolved in hydrochloric acid."
Four years later, thanks to U.S. support, the murderous, corrupt, but most importantly, anti-communist, Mobutu Sese Seko assumed power and ruled with, what William Blum calls, "a level of corruption and cruelty that shocked even his CIA handlers."
In the name of "authenticity," Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaïre, after a local word for "river," forced all his citizens to adopt African names, introduced a new currency, and renamed many cities. Ali bought into the façade of African-ness: "I wanted to establish a relationship between American blacks and Africans," he said. "All the time I was there, I’d travel to the jungles, places where there was no radio or television, and people would come up to me, and I could touch them."
Ali apparently had no comment about touching those housed in the secret detention cells under the stadium where the fight took place or the criminals who were rounded up and shot before the foreign press arrived. Sure, Mobutu was a murderer…but he was "our" murderer.
"The Mobutu era began with ardent U.S. support, financial and military," says journalist Ellen Ray. "From 1965 to 1991, Zaire received more than $1.5 billion in U.S. economic and military aid. In return, U.S. multinationals increased their share of the ownership of Zaire’s fabulous mineral wealth. On the foreign policy front, Zaire was a bastion of anti-communism during the Cold War, in the center of a continent Washington saw as perilously close to Moscow’s influence.
As President Bush the Elder put it, Mobutu was "our best friend in Africa." In contrast, Norman Mailer (on hand to cover the bout) called him "the archetype of a closet sadist.”
Which brings us to October 30, 1974.
"The Rumble in the Jungle was a fight that made the whole country more conscious," Ali wrote at the time. "The fight was about racial problems, Vietnam. All of that."
Not quite, Muhammad. Thanks to an acquiescent media, the general public’s knowledge of Zaire under Mobutu was limited to stories about African support for Ali and the rope-a-dope tactic the former champ employed to defeat Foreman. Many years later, when the dictator had outlived his usefulness to the U.S., "all of that" did come out.
"Mobutu’s corruption and brutality were ignored for thirty years," says Ray. "It was only when the plunder of western-owned assets and the ruination of the country were nearly complete, when Mobutu’s stolen billions had become a world-wide embarrassment, that the U.S. began to seek an acceptable change."
That’s when the corporate media spin began to turn in the other direction and the public suddenly learned all about Mr. Mobutu in a hurry.
"I may have lost that fight, but I learned a lot from it," sums up Big George today.
Too bad the American public can’t say the same.
MICKEY Z. is the author of "The Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda" (Common Courage Press). For more information, please visit http://www.mickeyz.net.