The terraces, which were packed with 100,000 people for “The Rumble In The Jungle”, are falling apart. Water leaks into the gyms where Ali and George Foreman trained for their epic fight.
But Kinshasa, capital of one of the poorest countries in the world, remains proud of having staged one of the most important sporting events of the 20th century on October 30, 1974.
Then the world was scared that Ali — aged 32 and fighting his way back to the top after his ban for refusing to fight in the US Army — would suffer a humiliating beating by the fearsomely powerful George Foreman, the defending world champion.
Ali soaked up the pressure for seven rounds, taunting his opponent all the time, and then knocked him out in the eighth with a lightning right hook. Ali became a legend.
Now each day, dozens of men, women and children still train in the stadium. After work and school they practice hooks and simulate fights, often without gloves and when they are still hungry.
Stadium security chief Abdelaziz Saliboko Serry took up boxing after watching Ali and Foreman.
“I was a good boxer but my father forced me to give up and study. I would still like to box, but I’m over 50 now so I can’t. I could have made a name like Muhammad Ali,” he said.
Ali won the fight and also the hearts of the people of DR Congo, which was then known as Zaire.
“Ali was one of us. We considered him a Zairean who was living in America. Foreman did not like contact with black people. He did not like this population and that was a factor in his defeat,” added Serry.
Guy Lioki, now 50 and a referee in amateur boxing tournaments, twice came across Foreman — who had already aggravated the local population by arriving on his plane accompanied by two German Shepherd dogs which evoked memories of the brutal rule of their former colonial masters Belgium — before the fight when a child.
“Foreman was too moody, even if he was black like us. He stayed with the important people and was really interested in the women,” he said.
Judex Tshibanda remembers Ali coming to box with the local children.
“We tried to hit him. I got him once in the stomach,” said the 52-year-old who became a boxer himself and now trains young fighters.
Ali completely won the occasion. Even his pre-bout quote deriding Foreman, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee — his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see,” has gone down in sporting folklore.
Foreman was totally out of place while Ali, a divisive figure in the United States even though he became a symbol of the fight against segregation in his homeland, felt entirely at home.
– Dictator’s Gift –
Posters put up across Kinshasa proclaimed “A gift from President Mobutu to the Zairiean people and an honour to the black man.”
Even the venue was then known as the May 20 Stadium after the date of the creation of Mobutu’s ruling party in 1967 and also played host to less welcome violence as opponents of the regime were tortured there.
The bout should have taken place in September, but had to be put back when Foreman injured a hand in training. A three day music festival featuring James Brown, BB King and Manu Dibango had even been organised leading up to the first date.
While the stadium was packed to the rafters for the fight, Mobutu watched a special live television broadcast in his palace. The bout started at 4:00am local time so that US television channels could show it live.
“Ali boma ye” (Kill him Ali), the crowd chanted. The slogan inspired Ali, even though his efforts to repeat the phrase with his thick American accent caused hilarity among Zaireans.
“It was an extraordinary knockout,” recalled Felix Mputu, 71, who had refereed some of the amateur fights that preceded the Ali-Foreman duel.
Mputu believes Foreman lost because he was too physical. “He hit too hard!”
“That is not what boxing should be, there has to be the spectacle. Muhammad Ali is a stylist, a technician,” said Mputu of the boxing legend, now 72, who has been brought to his knees by Parkinson’s disease.