SPORT Tribute

The Greatest and I

The Greatest and I
  • PublishedJuly 15, 2016

Stephen Tolbert III recalls his childhood encounter with Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa.

Strapped into my seat I sat silently facing my irritated father. He peppered aides with rapid-fire questions about money. Our Grumman Gulfstream 2 swerved, dipped, and jerked through the thick, seemingly endless cloud cover on its descent to Kinshasa.

It was October 1974 and we were flying to the climax of a project which had been planned in our homes in Washington DC, Wentworth, Surrey in the UK, and Bentol, Liberia. My father was in a sour mood, rolling his eyes and cursing under his breath. The six weeks’ delay caused by George Foreman’s eye injury had ballooned production costs, and this unanticipated out-of-pocket expense of $200,000 (in addition to several million already spent) had cast a pall over the project.

Where President Mobutu had provided the logistics for the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight and accompanying musical extravaganza, my father and his partners had been the principal financial backers.

A black limousine with police escort waited at the plane’s steps. Daddy greeted assorted officials in hushed tones, and our motorcade sped off towards the hotel for check-in and room inspection, after which we were driven directly to Mobutu’s palatial residence.

I played football with the security detail in the lush gardens, kicking the ball at the iridescent peacocks strolling across the lawns. My father and Mobutu talked inside. 

More than an hour had elapsed when Daddy and Mobutu emerged from their consultations. He was in a visibly better mood. Before we entered the limousine, Mobutu pinched my cheeks and caressed my head, he and my father hugged warmly, and our motorcade sped off towards another hotel. 

We walked through the hotel lobby with throngs of people wielding cameras and microphones. There was a palpable excitement, electricity, an air of expectation. Our security detail escorted us to a waiting elevator which took us to the top floors and towards large double doors which flew open as we approached.

And in the middle of the room, holding court with a handful of people seated on plush sofas, was ‘The Greatest’.

Ali bounced up on seeing my father: “Oh, looky here, it’s Ole Moneybags!” he exclaimed, pointing at my father. Daddy let out a raw, gregarious peal of laughter as the two men embraced tightly, rocking each other from side to side. I stood there watching in perfect, wide-eyed amazement. And then Muhammad Ali turned to me with a mock menace: “And who are you, young man?!!!”

I was confused and amazed. Overwhelmed! At barely 8 years old I had understandably forgotten my name! Standing beneath this impossibly beautiful, bright, magnetic, fast-talking giant I looked up to my father for rescue. “Oh, that’s my son, Stephen, Muhammad!” Daddy answered with a proud beam. Ali continued, bending over and drawing in closer: “D’you wanna be like me? A boxer? The Greatest? I’ll fight cha!!”

This was too much! An eight-year old was not trying to get his ass kicked by the strongest man in the world! I shuffled behind my father and wrapped my arms tightly around his waist for protection. There were roars of laughter in the suite. Then Muhammad Ali pulled me towards him, picked me up and hugged me. And once in his embrace I wouldn’t let go. I knew at that moment that I was the luckiest boy in the world!

Two historic films have emerged from that time in Kinshasa. It was a prototypical, seminal moment, a cutting-edge concept which celebrated and affirmed black talent and power by fusing sports and culture in a way that had never been done before.

The concerts which had occurred earlier brought together the exuberant, gyrating technicality and artistry of Africa’s and America’s best artists and performers including James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Celia Cruz and many other cultural luminaries.

Leon Gast was contracted to film the concerts and the Ali/Foreman fight. It was my father who had given promoter Don King his first big break. While the original idea had been Hugh Masekela’s, my father understood the challenge and backed the risk.

Within six months of this Kinshasa rendezvous my father was killed in a plane crash. And with him also died his dream of transforming Liberia into an international cultural destination with all the attendant economic effects. Sadder still was the fact that we lost our rights to the film footage by default judgement in a New York court in the 1980s simply because our legal guardians with fiduciary responsibility over our affairs didn’t show up. And that’s how Leon Gast ended up owning the property.

But the lessons of hope and challenge endure, and where there are barriers to be broken, or new, different and exciting things done which move the world’s needle in a positive direction, they must be done. Thanks Daddy! Thanks Muhammad Ali for making me feel like the Greatest at one moment in time. NA

Written By
New African

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *