The Department of State Reports on the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali Fight (‘The Rumble in the Jungle’) 1974, Part I

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

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Copyrighted

One of Muhammad Ali’s signature fights, perhaps even more famous than his wins over Sonny Liston, is the world heavyweight match with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in October 1974.  Given that the fight was between two Americans and took place in a foreign country, it is not surprising that the records of the Department of State include some documentation on the bout.  A review of the records on the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle” reveals some little known aspects of events relating to that fight.

In March 1974, the Department informed several Foreign Service Posts in of a report in the Washington Post that Muhammad Ali would fight the winner of the upcoming George Foreman-Ken Norton heavyweight title match about to take place in Caracas, Venezuela.  It reported that the Ali fight was scheduled for September.  The Department noted the plan for Ali to take in several exhibition matches, too.[1]

The countries through which Ali planned to travel welcomed the opportunity to host him.  Tourism officials in those countries especially welcomed the exposure because Ali was very popular and it would increase their visibility in the U.S.[2]

* * * * *

News of Ali’s upcoming visit to Africa led Radio Cameroon to make an April Fool’s broadcast about the arrival of “Cassius Clay” in that country to begin training.  The U.S. embassy in Yaounde sent the following report about the prank.

* * * * *

The American embassy in Kinshasa recognized the potential of the fight to be a positive public relations event but determined that it was best to play a low-key role in facilitating matters.  The embassy also requested advice from the U.S. embassy in Caracas, site of the Foreman-Norton championship bout.

 

In response to the embassy’s request for advice, the embassy in Caracas sent the following telegram.

 

* * * * *

A minor controversy erupted in June.  Ali’s team scheduled an exhibition bout for June 10 in Libreville, Gabon.  The Gabonese press touted the fight as “one more proof of fruitful exchanges which characterize excellent relations between the U.S. and Gabon.”[3]  At the last minute, however, the fight was cancelled.  Ali’s contract with the government of Zaire precluded fights in Africa before the event in Kinshasa but Ali’s camp did not interpret the contract to preclude an exhibition fight.  Zairian officials, however, would not give consent.  The three following telegrams tell the story.

Telegram from American Embassy Libreville Subject: Muhammad Ali

Telegram from American Embassy Libreville, re: Muhammad Ali, 6/1974

Telegram explaining the situation between the Ali camp, and the governments of Zaire and Gabon.

Telegram explaining the aftermath of the cancelled Ali visit to Gabon.

 

* * * * *

In late July, as the fight approached, the embassy sent a message to the Department, with the request that it be passed to all American diplomatic and consular posts.  Among other things, the message noted:

  • hotels in Kinshasa were not accepting reservations for several days around the scheduled date of the fight because all facilities had been frozen by the government of Zaire;
  • the embassy could not act as an agent for obtaining tickets or accommodations;
  • American citizens purchasing package deals that included airline tickets were advised to find out whether the package included a Zairian visa and an exemption from the Zairian requirement to spend a certain amount every day ($40 per individual; $60 per couple);
  • information was that tickets, which would cost between $10 and $250, would go on sale around September 1; and
  • accommodation and local tickets sales would be handled by the soon-to-be-formed Zairian Festival Committee and that nobody should plan to arrive in Kinshasa expecting to secure lodging and purchase tickets.[4]

* * * * *

As might be expected with such a high-profile event, a crush of media representatives was expected.  Zairian officials established a procedure for applying for official accreditation and the embassy provided that information to the Department for dissemination.

 

* * * * *

In conjunction with the fight Zairian officials planned a festival called “Zaire 74” at which African and American entertainers would perform before the Ali-Foreman bout.  The event was planned to take place before the fight.  On September 6, the leaders of the festival visited the embassy to ask for help.  They informed the ambassador that the cost to ship the necessary equipment from the U.S. to Zaire would add significantly to already-existing cost overruns and asked if U.S. could provide assistance by having the U.S. Air Force handle the transport.  The embassy reported on the request and the pros and cons of assisting in two high-priority telegrams.

 

Despite the embassy’s recommendation to approve the assistance, the Department turned down the request.

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Telegram from the Secretary of State re: Request for USG Assistance to Festival of Zaire 74, 9/1974

The embassy sent the following September 25 report on the results of “Zaire 74.”

The story will continue in Part 2.


Sources:  All documents displayed and referenced come from the Electronic Telegrams file of the Department of State’s Central Foreign Policy File (NAID 654098), part of RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Those records can be found online as part of the National Archives’ Access to Archival Databases under “Diplomatic Records.”

I appreciate the assistance of my colleague Cate Brennan.


[1]1974STATE059390, March 25, 1974.  The posts informed were the American embassies in Libreville, Lagos, Abidjan, Dakar, Yaounde, and Kinshasa and the consulate in Douala.
[2]See, for example, 1974LIBREV00387, March 27, 1974, and 1974DAKAR01673, March 29, 1974.
[3]1974LIBREV00663, June 1, 1974.
[4]1974KINSHA06489, July 26, 1974.  The Department of State repeated the message to all American diplomatic and consular posts as 1974STATE164293, July 29, 1974.

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