Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Sad Week in African Sports: Keshi and Ali Exit the Stage.

Steven Keshi
This has been some very tough few days for sports fans all across the African continent. Just yesterday, the African continent lost one of our greatest sportsmen. Steven Keshi, the Nigerian soccer maestro, who had won the African Nations Cup both as a player and later as the coach of the Nigerian national soccer team, the Green Eagles.

Apparently, the 54 year old African soccer legend had a sudden heart attack in Benin City, Nigeria yesterday and died rather quickly. Some of his acquaintances report that he had shown no sign of being sick before he started complaining of severe leg pain. He died while he was on the way to the hospital. 
Rufai, Oliseh, Keshi with 1994
African Cup of Nations

Stephen Keshi of Nigeria, Kalusha Bwalya of Zambia, the great Roger Milla of Cameroon and George Oppong Weah of Liberia, were African soccer pioneers who brought respectability and visibility to football in Sub-Saharan Africa, paving the way for many soccer players to move to the big leagues of Europe and the Americas. He spent the later years of his short life in the service of his country and led his country's national team twice as a coach. The continent will miss this great legend.

A few days before,  the "World's Greatest," Mohamed Ali, who did more than most to bring beauty to the brutal sport of boxing and who, against all odds, defeated the formidable George Foreman in Congo, the heart of Africa, on October 30, 1974, died on June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale Arizona, from a bout of pneumonia, after struggling for many years with the neurological disorder, Parkinson's disease.

Mohamed Ali
Though born in America, Mohamed Ali was popular on the African continent as a black sports icon, a civil rights activist and a flamboyant showman whose flashy style many African boxers at the time tried to emulate. 

In 1974, Mohamed Ali's popularity was sealed in Africa when on the invitation of Congo's former President Mobutu Sese Seko, a hedonist and megalomaniac, he fought heavyweight boxing sensation George Foreman in Kinshasa, in what is now modern day Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Both Mohamed Ali and George Foreman were Olympic boxing gold medalists who had fought their way to the top of the heavyweight division. In 1967, Mohamed Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title after he refused to be drafted into the US Army to fight in Vietnam, objecting on religious grounds. This action  caused him not only to be stripped of his boxing titles, but he was also suspended from boxing for 3½ years. 

During the time when Ali was away from the sport, the younger George foreman, after winning the 1968 Olympic gold medal, turned professional and easily demolished such notable heavyweights as Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. ultimately he stood alone, feared and revered at the top of the heavyweight division.
The Rumble in the Jungle

When Mohamed Ali challenged George Foreman in 1974, few believed Ali would win. Ali was 32 at the time and been away from the sport for a while, coming back in 1970 to be defeated by "Smoking" Joe Frazier. Foreman was 25, heavily muscled, built like a rock, with one of the strongest punches in boxing. 

Both men trained in Congo for the fight to acclimatize to the heat. On the fateful day, they had to fight at 4.00am in the morning Congo time, so that the American TV audience would be up to see the brawl. The rest as they say is history. After taking some heavy beating, Ali managed to produce a David and Goliath spectacle. He kept Foreman away with jabs, dodging Foreman's ferocious blows craftily. By the 8th round, Foreman was tired from throwing ineffective punches and Ali caught him with a right hook to the face, sending him sprawling to the canvas in front of thousands of adoring fans. The great Foreman was defeated both physically and psychologically, forcing him to retire prematurely from the sport of boxing.

The Ali Foreman fight, known as the "Rumble in the Jungle, is still one of the most popular fights in the history of boxing. Many years later, George Foreman returned to the sport of boxing and became the oldest Heavyweight Champion in history. Today George Foreman is a popular face on TV selling his grills and advertising for Meineke.

In later years Ali became a revered icon in America and much beloved around the world. In Africa his legacy will always live on.

Sheku Sheriff ©
Saint Paul, MN
6/8/2016