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Added: January 21, 2022
‘Oyé… Foreman boma yé,’ Elmo Henderson boomed up to the high ceilings of Kinshasa’s Inter-Continental hotel. glared.
Elmo’s lifetime catchphrase, ripped from the locals’ chants to Ali when he arrived for the Rumble in the Jungle, translated to: ‘Hear this… Foreman kill him!’ A very real fear Foreman would pummel Ali into retirement or worse had spread across the globe in 1974, inspired by his street-fighter savagery and awesome force.
Ali defiantly battled the public consensus with some of his finest material on the mic, while Foreman plunged into a deep state of murderous focus. Elmo had two roles in Africa – imitate Ali in sparring sessions, and stir up trouble. ‘Oyé… oyé.’
Albert ‘Elmo’ Henderson, pictured in 2004, has an incredible life story and claims he knocked out Muhammad Ali in an exhibition fight in 1972
The wiry and long-limbed, flamboyant and fearless former light-heavyweight champion of Texas would bounce around Foreman in the ring, springing between the ropes to absorb his monstrous hooks and refine his ability to hunt Ali down, then break through that whirring force-field of fists.
Henderson took greater pride in his other task. While Foreman remained an ominous locked box, Elmo turned into a living and breathing embodiment of the heavyweight champion’s cause in a louder, one-dimensional, even wilder-eyed adaptation of Ali.
American novelist icon Norman Mailer wrote in his Playboy piece: ‘Every time Elmo picked up that chant again, one felt a measure of Foreman’s blood beating through the day, pounding through the night in rhythm with that violence that awaits through the loneliness of every psychotic aisle.’
His lanky figure was impossible to miss for anyone on the ground in Zaire, and Elmo bellowed ‘oye’ all the way to ringside on surely boxing’s greatest night for its undisputed champion.
Ali stunned the world by knocking George Foreman out in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle
The sparring partner was brushing shoulders with icons James Brown, B.B. King and Celia Cruz, who performed a three-night concert among a set-list packed with stars – all brought to Zaire for unprecedented African and American history by the rookie promoter Don King.
You’d have thought this experience, if any from Elmo’s wandering life, was the one on which to dine out after the crowds stopped cheering. No, the Rumble was a mere sub-plot in the Texan’s journey.
When even the glory days’ final flickers were turned to stories, myths, truths and lies, Elmo – not homeless but without a home – toured the States telling of that time he knocked-out the king, Muhammad Ali.
‘Get away from me, sucker’
Elmo was searching for a megaphone in 2004 when he strode into the doctor’s office. By chance, the emergency room was the place his story had to be heard.
Albert Carl Henderson, as Elmo was born in 1935, was physically fine – he just liked a monthly check-up. The 69-year-old had been riding buses between couches, shelters and halfway houses in Texas, California or wherever life took him, for a while.
Now a spindly 6ft 2in, peppy fighting veteran with kind eyes, an old-school charm and weathered hands to betray their rugged life, he quickly engaged the doc in his slice of boxing history.
Elmo produced a crumbling black and white photocopy of a newspaper cut-out. The text was illegible but a picture of two fighters was clear enough. One had ‘Alie’ scribbled over his shorts, the other was Elmo.
Back in October 1972, two years before the Rumble, Elmo read that Muhammad Ali was putting on an exhibition against local boxers at San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum. Ali’s boxing licence had been restored two years earlier after his conviction for refusing the Vietnam War draft kept him barred four years.
Elmo planned to congratulate the Greatest on his comeback. He tells it best: ‘Well, I didn’t know nothing about it, but one of the fighters for that night was a kid from Mexico who couldn’t get his visa. So when I went to where Ali was staying I ran into the promoter on the bottom floor, and he says, “How would you like to put on an exhibition with Ali tonight?” And I okayed it.
‘Then, when I’m signing the contract, Ali comes up and taps me on the shoulder and says, “Get up and let me see what you got.” I said, “Get away from me, sucker. I’m too fast for you!” And he popped his eyes and got away.
San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum, where Henderson claims he knocked Ali flat on his back
‘I cranked up and made it to the dressing room at the coliseum. I got into my togs, and a guy came in and asked for me personally, Elmo Henderson. He said, “You first.” Here I am, thirty-seven years old, and they wanted me first, for three rounds with Ali. So I put my robe on and ran out there. I didn’t walk. I ran.
‘And I got up in the ring, looking at the fans, you know, putting the game on Ali. I’m looking down, and what’s going through my mind is, “I’m first, so I guess the old man gets the honours.”
“When they rang that bell, I came out like a speedball: Brr-rrrr-rrrr-rrrr, everything a blur, and then the first round was over. On to the second round. I didn’t run out. I took my time. Moving. Ali was looking for a jab, so I evened up on him and shot him a right. It was a good one. Even I saw lightning.
‘So the referee runs the count to eight, and instead of going on, he went back to one. Then he brought it up to eight again and stopped. I just pushed him away and said, “Hey, if you want to let him up, let him up.”
‘I said, “Get your ass up, kid! You ain’t hurt!” Then the bell rang and the referee came to my corner and said, “Elmo, that’s all.” But he didn’t raise my hand or give me my rights. He just put me out the ring, and they went on with the rest of the bouts.
‘And that’s about it, sir.’
That evening the ER doctor called up his bud at the magazine, John Spong. The Austin native’s dive down the Elmo rabbit hole produced his piece – Henderson’s megaphone.
A father of two with a seasoned journalist’s sensitivity and embedded, unmistakably Southern cadence, Spong was hooked at the doc’s synopsis: ‘I thought, that can’t be… real? So I found a non-profit shelter around the corner from the hospital and went looking for him there.
Muhammad Ali, pictured in Kinshasa before the Rumble, crossed paths with Elmo in 1972
‘He had been telling his story so much the guy that ran the place was thinking he wanted to write a book on Elmo because he was always going around looking for somebody to be the platform to get cash fast his story in front of more people.
‘I don’t normally trust that, those aren’t often real and they’re often manipulative people. But to spend time with him, he was so engaging and so fun to talk to I just wanted to keep hanging out.
‘To explore each little thread, there’s like three or four periods in his story. There’s the fighter in Corpus Christi (Texas) in the 60’s and you look, oh, he did win a light-heavyweight championship.
‘Then there’s the sparring with Foreman, oh, he is in this movie about the Rumble in the Jungle that’s one of the greatest ever made and won an Oscar (When We Were Kings).
‘He swears he sued Norman Mailer and won a load of money in Corpus Christi, oh, the attorney is still out there and backs up the whole thing. Each time I pulled on a thread, instead of the sweater unravelling… it just got cooler.’
On a Google image search, only the first row is populated by shots of Henderson. His Wikipedia page was created seven years after the Texas Monthly piece, beyond which there are only scraps online.
Ali is widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time
Many of Elmo’s memories had already fuzzed and faded by 2004. His universe had been consumed by the day he clocked Ali and by now most of his bio was a mystery.
Sparring partners are among the forgotten men of boxing. Behind the glitzy nights, those fighters the spotlight never saw back in boxing’s even deadlier days absorbed as many brain-rattling punches as the champions, but never earned a safety net for the inevitable consequences of the sport’s violence.
Foreman’s fists terrified the world. He’d make grown men sitting by their television flinch with a glance down the barrel, while Elmo braved a horrifying number of his bombs in the gym. He was much more than a sparring partner in his heyday, but Elmo received as unfeeling an ejection from boxing as the majority of fighters who sustained it.
Sadly, Foreman never did answer Spong’s calls for a chat about his old Ali impersonator.
Not matter how believable his story was, that October night did put our Texan journeyman on his meandering road to Foreman and Zaire.
Because Muhammad Ali really did put on an exhibition in San Antonio in the autumn of 1972. And it’s true, the bell did clang for Elmo Henderson vs The Greatest.
Elmo’s myths and claims of fluctuating plausibility include that he once played the role of a pimp in a movie, that he was the first black man ever to win a libel lawsuit against a white man (Mailer) and that he was released early from prison after beating the middleweight champion of Texas while he was an inmate.
<p class="mol-para-with-, the antagonising journalistic titan falsely described Henderson as a former patient at Nevada mental institution. Elmo sued for $1million and Mailer had no hope. He was ordered to cough-up $105,000.
Elmo told Spong he received $40,000, while the Vallejo reporter heard $115,000. Either way, it was enough to buy a used Ford Thunderbird and hit the road to work for Leon Spinks as a sparring partner.
Spinks promptly stunned Muhammad Ali by split decision in 1978. Revenge on Foreman’s behalf, or Elmo’s second knockout blow?
Leon Spinks lands a blow on Ali on the way to a surprise win against the ageing champ in 1978
By the time he was sitting across from Texas Monthly’s John Spong in an Austin restaurant, Elmo wasn’t so sure how he’d gotten there. Elmo’s Oh Yeah Boxing Club existed for a time after his retirement – and even then he liked to pump-up the crowd for his fighters – but it was all a little hazy after that.
Most of the protagonists from the Rumble and that golden era are gone. Foreman is 72 years old now but Mailer died in 2007, Ali in 2016.
Spong received calls from ‘Oyé’ long after he published the results of his brilliant piece. Elmo could finally upgrade his grotty newspaper clipping to a shiny new magazine edition.
‘He got copies of the magazine and went out on the road to show them to people. I think he went out to the Oklahoma area and every three or four years I’d get a call from someone that he’d bumped into in the street,’ the Texan said.
‘He’d done what he did with me, except he took out the Texas Monthly clip and told his story. So people would reach out.
‘The one time I remember most clearly, someone had bumped into him at a bus stop in the Oakland area and he was not entirely coherent. It just sounded like he had gotten old.’
Spong stopped hearing from Elmo somewhere midway through the last decade, and nobody knew where he’d ventured. The champ’s daughter, LaTara, confirmed her father passed away in 2017, aged 82.
From the steel mills to San Antonio and Zaire, back to the streets of Texas – the crowds always cheered for Elmo. ‘Oyé.’
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