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

 

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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