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Boxing can be touristic

Boxing can be touristic

“Diplo Rumble’’, the recent ceremonial boxing match between Prof. Azumah Nelson and Irchad Razaaly makes for interesting publicity.


The latter is the EU Ambassador to Ghana, and their keenly fought duel was to empower the youth through sports. The well-attended event reminds me of the ‘’Rumble in the Jungle’’ exactly 50 years ago which caused a tourism craze and made the world stand still. In that epic event, Mohammed Ali ‘bo mayed’ George Foreman in the then Zaire at the only world heavyweight fight to be staged in Africa.

When it was being planned, no one probably thought of the word ‘tourism’ but when it happened, not only did it attract a huge crowd but it also generated fresh interest in a continent that was out of the ring of world ‘happenings’.

Held at the 60,000-filled Stadium in Kinshasa, the Rumble in the Jungle gave mileage to Africa as a destination. For a spell, that ‘greatest sporting event of the 20th century’’ made Africa the centre of the world.

Though the event sparked up interest in boxing, creating other heroes such as our own Azumah Nelson, how the continent capitalised on that inroad is another topic for discussion.

The bout was beamed live to a global audience. But more than that, it was the very idea of a brawl in the remote jungle of Africa that tickled the rest of the world. It was also the hype and the rather long buildup that did the trick.

Almost a year to the D. Day, Don King had told the world that something big was going to happen in Africa, in a place called Zaire. That in itself got travellers, tourists and boxing fans looking for the map.

Foreman and Ali spent about four months training in Zaire to properly acclimatise to the tropical African climate. That alone kept the world camera on Zaire. When eventually September 25, 1974 came, the fight had to be postponed another month as Foreman had a cut near his right eye during training.

Amid the suspense, the two boxers developed their separate chemistries with the African audience. Ali was ahead in this regard as he had already toured Africa 10 years earlier. He knew how to turn on the crowd.

George Foreman claimed that when he was with them, the crowd chanted, ‘Foreman, bo maye!’ To wit: ‘Foreman, Kill him!’ But that same chant was loudest from the fans of Ali. ‘’Ali, bo maye!’ (reminds me of some political party rally attendants).

The whole setting was like a drama stage with twists and turns, all ahead of the big fight. The Diamond-rich African country’s authorities were not going to be left out of the Jungle Fever. Indeed, Mobutu Seseseko quickly turned himself into a huge boxing patron making everything logistically possible to happen.

To attempt an analogy, think of it like what happened in 2010 when South Africa staged the FIFA World Cup.  Truth be told, the epic duel was also inspired by a Marcus Garvin ideal. Unknown to many, the idea of the Jungle fight was seen as an opportunity to make African-Americans (then Afro-Americans) come home to see the continent.

Add the fact that Ali hadn’t fought in mainland America in a while. Here’s the big idea- two African- Americans to slug it out where it all began. The originally suggested tag for the fight was ‘Slave Ship to Championship.’’ (check the rhyme!)

Right up to this day, the African-American segment of tourism arrival to the continent is significant. Apart from Ghana, Senegal and Benin are making huge chunks of dollars from that market alone.

But if you think Don King was the biggest proponent of African diasporan tourism in that regard, listen to Mohammed Ali himself: ‘’I am glad to tell our people that there are more things to be seen in Africa than lions and elephants.”

Ali said this upon his arrival in Ghana for a visit in 1964. “They never told us about your beautiful flowers, magnificent hotels, beautiful houses, beaches, great hospitals, schools and universities,” he added.

Courtesy Mohammed Ali, the Rumble in the Jungle also positioned Africa as a honeymoon destination for newlyweds. In the heat of training for the match, The Greatest Boxer of all time found the mind to quickly marry a new wife. Ali met and hurriedly married Veronica Porsche in a secret ceremony in Kinshasa. Call it a side attraction to the Rumble Jungle.

A bigger side attraction, which was also in the spirit of tourism, was the three-night-long music festival to hype the fight. This, after all, is Africa and we don’t do it without music and dance.

Dubbed ‘Zaire 74’, the marathon concert featured world heavyweight pop stars. The lineup included James Brown, Celia Cruz the Fania All-Stars and B.B. King. Others who also performed are The Spinners, Bill Withers and The Crusaders.  

Of course, the African artistes were not left out. Papa Wemba, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango and Hugh Masekela were among the sons and daughters of the soil who showed the world that there is a sweet melody too in the Jungle. 
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