by Andrew Davie
The collective excitement of the crowd above resonated within the foundation of the structure, causing rubble to fall from the ceiling. Gael’s scalp was lacerated many times over, and bits of the debris would cake to his forehead and face. He debated what he looked like, hours without sleep, covered in grit.
His lips had swollen to almost four times their normal size, giving his words a saturated quality. Spitting a black wad, the expectorant hit the edge of the bucket nearby; the rest cascaded down his chin staining his shirt another shade of crimson. If it wasn’t for the commotion of the crowd, he would not have known what time or day it was.
“They have him at forty to one,” Anatole said, sitting in his hardback wooden chair.
“His time is done,” he added, despising the threat to authority Ali embodied,
“If he ever was truly ‘The Greatest.’”
Some might imagine this to be the best time, a reprieve from the beating, but it was worse. Time could not be marked and took on an elastic quality. Anatole removed the nub of a cigar from his breast pocket. This meant there were, at least, fifteen minutes before the next session began in earnest.
“He’s going to win.”
The words bubbled forth, trapped within the air pockets of Gael’s engorged face.
Two months he’d been kept in this catacomb, starved and beaten. Sometimes, he’d be taken to an isolated cell, enveloped in darkness for days, only to be put back in with the other prisoners. His nose, severely broken, cut off his sense of smell and limited his vision; both were good things since the buckets had long since overflowed. The insects were the only truly unbearable thing. Once the gnats got a taste, they stayed with him twenty-four hours masticating nonstop. His skin felt like braille when he flicked them away.
The accusations were never revealed to the prisoners; no charges formally filed. They simply rounded up hundreds of purported criminals, socialists, enemies of the political party, and held them in an underground prison below the stadium. Those who whispered cries of rebellion were quickly silenced by the others. Hope was a dangerous thing to have in this place. Who cares if you’re a thief or a prime minister, Gael heard one man speak through grated teeth, we’re all the same in here.
In darkness with the other prisoners, words seemed to emerge from the ether: a man’s impassioned pleas to be released, which quickly spread fear and hatred. Threatening to consume all of them beyond their capabilities, other prisoners quieted this man using any means necessary.
The first week in nearly broke Gael, but he managed to keep hold of his sanity.
He was only passing through Kinshasa. Though it was the place of his birth, he had no desire to return. He’d needed to see the world, live life, escape from an unbearable existence. It was only by mere chance his travels saw him back to his origins. During the worst time of his incarceration, he’d imagine where he might be if he’d only taken a different route during his travels. He’d whittle away and empirically strip down the various opportunities to avoid Kinshasa, then laugh as he realized what did him in was the need for good coffee.
Anatole rotated the cigar so it lit evenly, then exhaled the smoke, and let it dribble from the corners of his mouth. Later, he would return home to a bottle of wine, a raw steak, and make love to his mistress. He’d proffered this information in between beatings.
“Let’s make a wager then, shall we?” Anatole asked.
“What … what are the stakes?”
Anatole paused to smell the rich tobacco. He took out his lighter, flipped it open, then shut it, and repeated the process a few times. He seemed to be captivated by the inscription before saying
“Your life of course.” He tapped ash on the ground.
“If Ali wins, I’ll see to it you’re released; if he loses…”
Almost on cue, the crowd swelled again, and the walls shook, as if God himself were going to hold their agreement in escrow.
Since his exile and return to the sport, Muhammad Ali had lost to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. He barely won both rematches. Gael himself had been an amateur prospect when he was still in his teens, he knew how much those fights had taken out of Ali.
George Foreman had destroyed both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in under two rounds. It was rumored his punches had left permanent impressions in heavy bags. He was mean and intimidating. A former sparring partner of Sonny Liston, he sought to emulate his fallen mentor.
Before he was rounded up, Gael was having coffee in a cafe when the camera crew met Foreman at the airport. Exiting his plane, the heavyweight champion had a German Shepherd with him. Belgians had used this breed to instill fear during their colonization. Ali very quickly ingratiated himself to the people, and chants of “Ali Bomaye: Ali kill him,” could be heard throughout the country.
Gael looked up at the ceiling. In a few moments, these two titans would do battle directly above him. Anatole checked his watch, and stood, dusting himself, then stopped and spent a minute cleaning a scuff mark from his shoes.
“I have a feeling you’ll be able to settle your debt shortly,” he said.
The door shut behind him, Gael heard the bolt snick into place. Silence, then another explosion from the crowd.
Nauseated, he crawled to the corner of the room. The stomach cramps squeezed his abdominal muscles to the point where he felt them about to tear. Then it passed, and sleep came without his consent.
In the opening rounds of the fight, Muhammad Ali employed right-hand leads, an extremely unorthodox tactic, which the Foreman camp did not anticipate. A chess player and student of the game helped by his longtime trainer Angelo Dundee, Ali decided he would win this fight by a war of attrition. Knowing his legs no longer possessed the durability to allow him to move like he once could, his team loosened the ropes ahead of the fight so he could sag against them and avoid taking the full weight of Foreman’s blows. Similarly, while tied up in a clinch, he’d chide Foreman questioning his punching power and ability as a champion. Foreman, enraged, continued to unload a barrage of punches to Ali’s mid-section, shoulders, chest, and head.
Gael awoke to another thunderous sound from above, and for a brief moment forgot he’d been cast into this dungeon. He had to pry his eyelids open, as they’d been sealed with dried blood. He heard a knock on the door, and froze, steeling himself against whatever lay on the other side of the partition. Was the sound he’d heard only moments before the shattering of Ali’s resolve? Had the younger stronger challenger vanquished another foe and ascended to Mt. Olympus? Was this next moment going to be his last on earth? Light entered the room, searing everything it touched, and the door shut again.
He could sense a figure before him.
If he was a religious man, he would ascribe his current status as punishment for past transgressions.
“You do not look well,” Anatole said.
“Is this Hell?” Gael managed, his teeth chattering, consumed in a feverish delirium.
Anatole moved closer and reached out gripping Gael by the chin. Recoiling from the touch, Gael could not release from the vice like grip and anticipation fed electricity through his body.
“Hold still,” Anatole commanded and lifted a cup of water to Gael’s lips. He drank, feeling the very essence of life return to his body. Choking, he spit some of it out, before slinking back to the ground. He retched a few times, then turned onto his side. Anatole bent down, squatting. In the darkness, Gael sensed hesitation coming from his captor.
“Do you have anything you want to say to me?”
Silence, as the sounds from above continued.
“It’s up to Ali now,” Gael finally replied, then let out a laugh which ended in another coughing fit, black liquid pouring forth from his mouth. He lost consciousness again, and when he awoke Anatole was gone.
The punishment for Ali continued, as Foreman’s onslaught remained consistent. However, the intensity, mind games, and pace of the fight began to wear Foreman down. Ali’s punches took their toll as well, and in the 8th round of their fight, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman.
The cafe was different than he remembered, but much had changed in the years since his imprisonment. Gael leaned down and shut his eyes. He tried to remember the smell of the dry roast but could not. Like trying to remember the notes of a song, it could not compare to hearing it in the moment, feeling the vibrations permeate your being and vibrate within. His sense of smell was permanently lost as a direct result of the abuse, but now he hovered over his coffee hoping the olfactory sensations would reveal themselves.
Sitting for too long often made him stiff, forcing him to contort in his seat. At the beginning, soon after they married, his wife would have to comfort him from extreme night terrors which saw him practically leap from the bed onto the floor, covered in sweat, lashing out at imagined captors. Over time, he was able to sleep through the night, but could never remain still. They had to sleep in separate beds. She would lie next to him in his until he fell asleep, then move to the adjacent one. He never fully confided in her the details of his captivity, and she never asked. Swearing an oath never to return to Zaire, he only agreed to accompany her to visit her dying father.
He lifted the cup to his lips and took a deep gulp, tasting the muted flavors.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
Gael tried to gather his thoughts and respond, but couldn’t. The man sat, assuming silence meant approval.
“Thank you,” the man said, and tasted his coffee, “I’ve never seen it so crowded.”
Gael tried not to stare, and though tremors fought to exhibit themselves, he remained stoic.
“There is a fight on,” Gael said and jutted his chin toward the corner. More than twenty people sat in rapt attention around a beaten black and white set. The picture was woefully distorted, but the announcer’s voice came through clearly. Larry Holmes, the undefeated champion, was fighting his former mentor, and previous champion, Muhammad Ali. Ali was coming out of retirement to become the first four-time champion, and again the odds were stacked against him. It seemed more like an execution than a prize fight, the champion being too fast, too strong, and too young.
“Who is fighting?” The man asked, and pulled a cigar from his breast pocket.
“Do you mind?” He added.
Gael felt his lower back begin to stiffen.
“Not at all.”
The man pulled out a silver zippo lighter and flicked it open. The symbol of the Forces Armées Zaïroises emblazoned on one side, an inscription on the other. The man rotated the cigar, snapped the lighter shut, and exhaled the smoke.
“Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali,” Gael said.
At the mention of Ali’s name, the man stopped inhaling.
“Ali?” He said between clenched teeth, shook his head, and laughed. Removing the cigar, he said, “I was at the Foreman fight; when was that?”
“Six years ago.”
Gael felt like someone had taken a crowbar to his kidney’s. Lightheadedness threatened to overtake him, but he shook it off. Taking another sip of coffee, he extinguished the urge to wrap his hands around the man’s throat and tear his esophagus from his body, then watch the smoke pour forth from the wound. He wondered if the man would die from shock, or thrash around on the ground and bleed out; or whether he’d live, relegated to a life with a tracheotomy ring, and have to talk with an electrolarynx.
“I had a wager on that fight.” The man said, shook his head, and continued
“Who would have thought Ali could have won? Just proves he truly is the greatest.”
Neither of them said anything as the fight began. Ali looked haggard, a shell of himself. Though the charisma and attitude exuded from the fighter, all of his boasts and declarations were hollow. Holmes, while not a master rhetorician, possessed a piston-like jab and underrated skill. A former sparring partner to Joe Frazier, Ernie Shavers, Jimmy Young, and Ali himself, he’d studied and learned with the best of them. Even the casual observer could tell it would be a slaughter. By round eight, Holmes had convincingly won every round in lopsided fashion, battering Ali with great reluctance. Cries of anguish were heard from diehard fans to whom Ali was still a symbol of everything holy. Enthusiastically, they attempted to resurrect the old fighter, will him to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, mount a comeback and regain his throne. A vicious unanswered three punch combination from Holmes murdered those sentiments and quieted the crowd.
“What was the wager?” Gael’s voice was barely perceptible even to himself.
“I’m sorry?” The man said, relighting his cigar.
The man stopped and put the lighter away, then after making sure the cigar was out, put the nub in his breast pocket.
“Do you have many close friends?” The man said.
Gael hesitated for a moment, unsure of how to answer. The man scratched at his nose.
“When I was a school boy, I had a close friend. Thick as thieves, I’ve heard the expression used; brothers. Everything we did together.” The man got animated and pointed toward the TV, “Boxing, futbol.” He sucked at his teeth, then grew solemn.
“My sister Grace fell in love with him.”
The crowd swelled for what looked like a brief Ali resurgence but was just as quickly quelled. Round ten was about to begin, with the announcers discussing how stopping the fight out of mercy would be a suitable ending.
“Naturally, when she told me they were to be married, I was elated; this man would now be my brother in the eyes of God. We celebrated, talked of joining the FAZ together. She was pregnant after all, he needed to provide for her.”
The man removed his lighter and marveled at it.
“He left one day. No goodbye, no letter, just up and vanished.”
He continued to stare at the lighter, tilted it back and forth as it caught the light, then lit the flame.
“What kind of a man does that to his family?”
Silence fell over the table, and the lights seemed to dim. Gael felt the walls closing in on them, and gripped the edges of his chair to prevent falling over.
“Revenge, naturally goes through the mind of course. But, it’s cloaked in the morality of justice. This man was my friend. So, what would you have done, if you had such a man who’d wronged you and the opportunity presented itself to take revenge? Would you take it?
The flame continued to flutter.
“In the end, I left it up to chance.”
Quickly, the man snapped the lid shut. The look on the man’s face was not one of anger or remorse, but indifference.
“Do you have anything you want to say to me?” The man said. Gael was silent. “I didn’t think so.” The man killed his coffee, “I must be going.”
He stood up and brush himself off, then headed to the door. Crossing the street, the man arrived at a shoe shine stand. He flipped a sign from closed to open, and a customer sat down. Gael continued to stare as the man knelt and plied his trade, watching him buff the patent leather of his patron’s shoes.
When Gael stood, he noticed the man’s lighter. Gael picked it up, and read the inscription: “To Anatole, my brother.” Gael put the lighter in his pocket and left. He did not need to stay to watch the execution. Ali the champion, the symbol who shone so bright years ago, had faded.
After round ten, Ali’s trainer stopped the fight and put an end to what one ringside observer would later describe as “An autopsy being performed on a living person.”
A visibly shaken Larry Holmes later wept during his post-fight interview, and visited Ali afterward, paying the fallen champion his respect, perhaps seeking forgiveness.