Ready to rumble: Ali and Foreman in the famous 1974 fight. Photo: Getty
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Lords of the ring: reliving Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle”

A running commentary by Ricky Hatton and fellow boxers to mark the 40th anniversary of the super-fight, in what turned out to be a brilliantly conceived and delivered programme

 

Reliving the Rumble
BBC Radio 5 Live

“Eyes open – look! His eyes are always open, looking, looking . . .” Ricky Hatton is watching a film of Muhammad Ali’s and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle” with his fellow boxers Carl Froch and David Haye, all giving a running commentary to mark the 40th anniversary of the super-fight, in what turned out to be a brilliantly conceived and delivered programme (30 October, 7.30pm).

We are all familiar with the rhythms and tones of this type of commentary – usually that most ubiquitous of extras on DVDs of everything from old movies to celebrated football matches. It’s sometimes a drag and sometimes interesting, if you can be arsed. (I think it’s never been better than when Jack Nicholson settles into critiquing a favourite role of his, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, evidently sinking deep into an armchair for the duration and lighting a massive cigar. “Excuse me, ma’am, can you tell me where . . .” goes the opening line on-screen. “First words,” comments Nicholson in that familiarly low-pulsed voice, bursting with pride.)

On BBC Radio 5 Live, unusually quickly it’s clear that it doesn’t matter remotely that it’s all voice and no image. To see Ali pasting a bewildered Foreman clear as day, you merely have to sit very still and listen. Easy to do, because the three men speaking are impeccable at filtering what they are looking at: meticulously descriptive, personal. Says Haye: “He throws his right hand almost as if it’s his left hand. I think to myself, why can’t I do that? Because I don’t have the speed.” Hatton is particularly good at the second-by-second sketch: “A quick one-two-bang-bang, then uses his forehand to just nudge him and then gets that right hand to one-two and then pushes with his palm to shift . . .” Froch is awed but always careful to explain why. “Yep, there it is, that shot. It makes you breathe heavy. It makes you tired. Suicide. Suicide mission going on here.” Riveting.

And what became clear is that boxing suits this sort of analysis possibly better than any other sport, even tennis, because it is all decisions, all choices – no ball randomly hitting a knee here and stopping the thinking. Powerfully smart stuff. I’d listen again in a flash. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge