Fear and Loathing in the Swimming Pool

Hunter S Thompson and the Rumble in the Jungle

Most of the reporters who attended Stade Tata Raphaël on October 30, 1974 have gone down in the pantheon of great boxing journalists; Norman Mailer, Jerry Izenberg and George Plimpton et al. One name however, hovers mythically out of reach of theirs, a man for whom Ziare produced a very different, and altogether more bizarre experience. The iconic, Hunter S Thompson.

Psychedelic king of counterculture, Thompson was assigned by Rolling Stone magazine to infiltrate the immense spectacle Don King was erecting in the Jungles of Africa. Thompson had made his name pioneering what he called “Gonzo” Journalism, first hand accounts of his adventures into the unusual. His prose slithered into american society, holding the mirror to glamorous events and criminal enterprises. Exposing their dark and slimy underbelly and violent seductiveness. He seemed the perfect candidate to scoop up the messy excess that would surely come with a Heavyweight title fight held in a totalitarian state.

His experiments in Gonzo began when he lived inside the Hells Angels, the motorcycle gang whose infamy peaked at the Altamont pop festival. The ensuing book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, was met with massive acclaim, but also put a price on his head. This led to Hunter being savagely beaten, an event that scarred him forever.

In the wake of the assault Hunter’s drinking and drug use stepped up, but so did his work, his article ‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved’ is a bold critique of sport and won many awards. ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72’ is an eloquent and damning indictment of Richard Nixon and the functioning of the american political machine, and his seminal novel ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ is a frantic tale of hedonism and excess that has branded its author into the cultural zeitgeist. By 1974 Hunter was atop the Journalistic world, ruler of his own style and bathing in the excess that success had brought him.

He was a big fan of Muhammad Ali and had a fierce sense of Louisville loyalty as they were both from the same city. In Fear and Loathing he wrote  “Frazier had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand – at least not out loud.”.Drecrying those on the political right who would celebrate Ali’s loss for political gain. As always though Thompson convulsed with contradictions and by the time he reached Ziare his political zeal and the link it held with boxing was completely absent.

His focus was wholly absorbed by his various addictions. He landed in Africa with his friend and collaborator, avant garde hallucinogenic artist Ralph Steadman, who although idiosyncratic and eccentric didn’t enjoy chaos to quite the same degree as Hunter. “All he wanted to do was swim or sleep or take drugs. One of the first things he did was go out and get a big bag of grass. Huge bag of grass” Steadman told Newsweek, “We were staying at the InterContinental in Kinshasa. Thompson really didn't want to watch a couple of guys fighting. He was doing it for the job. He was very insulting about it.”

Hunter had decided he was on holiday. Chivas Regal whiskey, cheap Marijuana, Dunhill Cigarettes and cocaine was the order of the day. Late nights and even later mornings became his habit as he partied away the advance he’d been given by the magazine.

Steadmen recalled; “He used to have six Bloody Marys on a breakfast tray in his hotel room, when he finally awoke—at 3:00 in the afternoon. That's when his day started. It started with those six Bloody Marys”.  Hunter was never sober in Africa.

When the money ran out Hunter simply sold his tickets for the fight and continued to buy drugs, whiskey and even a pair of illegally poached elephant tusks from a street vendor. “You've sold the tickets? For God's sake, we've come all this way to do that. I mean, it's crazy! We might as well take a stab at it." Steadman protested.

"If you think I'm gonna watch a couple guys beat the shit out of each other, you got another thing coming." Hunter retorted in his usual monosyllabic grunt, barley getting the sentence out between sips of Chivas.

When the night came and the eyes of the world were on the ring but Hunter’s were on the moon. He told George Plimpton  the morning after the fight; “Oh, I didn’t go to the fight, I stayed in the hotel swimming pool. I lay on my back looking at the moon coming up and the only person in the hotel came and stared at me a long time before he went away. Maybe he thought I was a corpse. I floated there naked”.

Thompson, immersed in a psychotropic trance, just stared at the sky as the greatest spectacle in the history of sport unfolded around him. Lost in the vast expanse of the universe, mere yards from its epicenter. Hunter hadn't lost control he had knowingly rescinded it. Chosen to be the corpse he spoke of, not the journalist that had been sent.

As a thousand telegrams were sent, articles dictated over payphones, close circuit images beamed into movie theaters, as word spread of the great deeds of Muhammad Ali, of the Rope-a- Dope, of the heroism and glory, as the world awoke to a new era of boxing and Sport, Hunter lay in the pool, semi conscious.

His debauchery, his depravity, had robbed the world of a night that needed him. An event that should have produced the next great work of Gonzo journalism. Addiction and an unrelenting desire to take his hedonism to its most violent conclusion meant that the next great Thompson work was never written. The office’s of Rolling Stone received no dispatches, no article, no story.

Even the next day his mind was not consumed by remorse or regret, simply tales of excess. ; “I threw a pound and a half of marijuana into the pool—it was what I had left and I am not trying to smuggle it out of this country—and it stuck together there in a sort of clot, and then it began to spread out in a green slick. It was very luxurious floating naked in that stuff, though it’s not the best way to obtain a high, felt luxurious though”  this is the unravelling of man, the lapse in clarity and perspective that had overwhelmed a once great writer, a reporter who only got the scoop when the next days newspaper was pushed under his door.

The Bizarre portrait of Ali that Steadman drew to accompany Hunters article

Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, the man whose faith in Hunter was diminishing by the minute later told the film critic Roger Ebert that Zaire was the death knell for Hunter's true journalistic excellence.  “After Africa, he just couldn't write. He couldn't piece it together”.

Hunter Thompson the journalist died that night in Zaire, a causality of self destruction. He missed the sporting spectacle that defined the century, drowning in his own ego. The keen eyed reporter, the dogged investigator, the Gonzo pioneer, had been eaten alive by the chemicals  he fed to the demons of his mind.

The writer, the artist then made way for the cocaine snorting, gun toting cult figure of his later years, a skin he could never truly wear with comfort. Movies, books and celebrity visits to his bar, the Woody Creek tavern, only staved off the demons that bedevilled him in Africa.

Eventually Hunter took his own life in 2005, leaving a legacy of nothing but brilliant chaos.

Ewan Breeze

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