Magazine article New African

The Greatest and I: Stephen Tolbert III Recalls His Childhood Encounter with Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa

Magazine article New African

The Greatest and I: Stephen Tolbert III Recalls His Childhood Encounter with Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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? …

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