23 September 2023 (released)
26 September 2023
“Let’s get ready to rumble!” Following on from their immersive take on Bjorn Borg v John McEnroe, immersive theatre specialists Rematch switches gears to bring to life one of history’s greatest sporting events, the 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman known as “Rumble In The Jungle”.
Ali was happy to be known as “The Greatest”, a good indicator of both his talent and his modest amount of modesty. He is renowned as one of the greatest sportsmen of the twentieth century, a man who combined supreme ability with intelligence, determination and a boisterous public persona. He didn’t take long to impress the world: at the age of 22, he was the youngest person to beat a reigning world heavyweight champion (a record he held until the Mike Tyson era). He defended his title on numerous occasions but, after converting to Islam and refusing to serve in Vietnam, was stripped of his titles and imprisoned in 1967. He returned to the ring three years later and, after a couple of easy wins, was rewarded with a match up against heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in 1971.
Dubbed “The Fight Of The Century”, this battle garnered an audience of over 300 million viewers across the world. It took 15 rounds but, by the end, Frazier was deemed the winner by unanimous decision and Ali’s career was deemed on the edge of a precipice. No-one would have faulted the boxer if he had chosen to retire but, in typical bullish style, he fought his way back to a rematch with - and a unanimous decision victory over - Joe Frazier in January 1974.
By this stage, Frazier had lost his heavyweight belts to George Foreman. Before going on to have a grill and four sons named after him, Foreman was a formidable fighter known as the hardest hitting man in the sport and came to the Ali fight with zero losses to his name. Ali was shorter and, at 32, seven years older than the unbeaten champion. Furthermore, the only two men to have beaten Ali had both been recently knocked out in the second round by Foreman. Unsurprisingly, bookmakers favoured the champ and had Ali down as the underdog at 4-1 odds. Many expected this to be the last time that “The Greatest” would grace the headlines.
Flamboyant promoter Don King – a man every bit as feisty as Ali – saw an opportunity to create a sporting event to rival “The Fight Of The Century”. His idea was to move the match to Zaire (known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) where military dictator President Mobutu promised a lavish reception. The build up saw American musicians like James Brown flown over to the African country to entertain the crowds in the days before the official bout. Scheduled for 4am local time in order to accommodate US audiences and with no little drama before they met in the ring, Ali and Foreman’s fight has gone down in history, not just because of the result but how it was achieved.
Rematch already have form when it comes to recreating well known matches so expectations for this current production are, understandably, high. For this, they have taken over the massive DockX warehouse in Canada Water near to the brilliant immersive Western-themed escape room Phantom Peak. Next year, the venue will see another story of a young king trying (and ultimately failing) to hold onto his crown as Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma star in a hotly-anticipated Macbeth.
Rematch have expertly converted the warehouse into a large area in which the audience are free to roam. At one side, there’s an African market complete with an open kitchen, a bar, stalls and singers to regale us as we tuck into a variety of freshly-prepared dishes. Elsewhere, there’s an American equivalent to this in the Hotel Kinshasha where hotdogs, cocktails and a merch stand are the order of the day. Between them, a huge stage has a rolling programme of musical entertainment when Mobutu and his goons aren’t using it to extol the virtues of his reign.
Actors playing Ali, Foreman et al constantly move around, pulling us into their dramas and engaging with us. We hung out for a while with Don King (played superbly by Elliot Rodriguez). In one scene, he takes a handful of audience members into the dressing rooms where he wins over a couple of Mobutu’s soldiers. Elsewhere, we catch up with revolutionaries, band members and George Foreman himself before the big fight starts and we all invited to watch a blow-by-blow replay of Ali v Foreman (Kimane Juneau and Joshua C Jackson respectively). Around a life-size ring, we watch the actors play out the match – Foreman a fury of punches, Ali using his rope-a-dope style to take the blows – while footage from the original game is shown behind them.
From beginning to end, this is an all-enveloping affair that rewards the curious and the adventurous. Sure, you can sit in the hotel bar with a beer and a burger but where’s the fun in that? To get the most out of this show, walk and wander everywhere, converse with the characters as they go past and treat yourself to one of the best brochures we’ve seen in a long time. Rematch have obviously not only a lot of money but a lot of time on making this as immersive as possible and the results are a knockout.
Rumble In The Jungle continues until 29 October through rumblerematch.com.
Photo credit: James North Photography