‘Oyé… Foreman boma yé,’ Elmo Henderson boomed up to the high ceilings of Kinshasa’s Inter-Continental hotel. Muhammad Ali glared. 

Elmo was famous for his lifetime catchphrase. It is a phrase that Ali learned from locals when he came to the Rumble in The Jungle. This translated into: “Hear this… Foreman, kill him!” In 1974, fear that Foreman would make Ali retire or even worse spread around the world. It was fueled by Elmo’s streetfighter brutality and incredible 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

Albert ‘Elmo’ Henderson, pictured in 2004, has an incredible life story and claims he knocked out Muhammad Ali in an exhibition fight in 1972

Foreman, who was a wiry, long-limbed and fearless ex-light-heavyweight champion in Texas, would bounce around Foreman inside the ring. He’d grab his hooks, and then refine his ability, to track Ali down and break through the force field of fists. 

Henderson was prouder about his other job. Foreman was a looming locked box. Elmo became a real, living embodiment of heavyweight champion in an even louder, more one-dimensional and wilder-eyed version of Ali.

Norman Mailer, American novelist and icon Norman Mailer wrote 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.’ 

Elmo, with his long and muscular figure made it impossible for any person to miss him on Zaire’s ground. 

Ali stunned the world by knocking George Foreman out in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle

Ali shocked the entire world when he knocked George Foreman out during the 1974 Rumble In the Jungle

B.B. and James Brown were the sparring partners. 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. 

This would have been the perfect place to dine after all the cheers. The Rumble wasn’t a major plot point in Elmo’s life. 

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 out of me, sucker”

Elmo, who was looking for a megaphone back in 2004, walked into the doctor’s offices. His story was heard in the emergency room, which happened by chance.  

Albert Carl Henderson, as Elmo was born in 1935, was physically fine – he just liked a monthly check-up. For a time, the 69-year old had traveled by bus between shelters, couches and halfway houses throughout Texas, California, or anywhere else in America.

He is now a 6ft 2in tall, and a peppy fighter veteran. With kind eyes, old-school charm, and shrewd hands that betray their rough life, he engaged the doctor in his piece of boxing history.    

Elmo created a crumbling photocopy in black and white of an old newspaper cut-out. While the text was hard to read, it was easy enough to see two fighters in action. Elmo was the one who had Alie scribbled on his shorts.    

Elmo discovered that Ali would be putting on an exhibit against San Antonio boxers in October 1972. This was two years prior to the Rumble. Ali had his boxing license restored after he was convicted of refusing to sign up for the Vietnam War draft. He was barred from being a fighter for four years. 

Elmo We were going to felicitate the Greatest for his return. This is what he says 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. When I reached Ali’s hotel, I met the promoter at the bottom of the building. He said, “How would it be to have an Ali-themed exhibition tonight?” This was my agreement.

‘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 replied, “Get out of me, fool!” I’m too fast for you!” Then he raised his eyebrows and ran away.

San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum where Henderson says he knocked Ali off his back 

“I got up, and I made it to the dressing area at the coliseum. After I had changed into my clothes, Elmo asked me to call him Elmo Henderson. He said, “You first.” They wanted me to start with Ali for the three rounds. Here I am, 37 years old. I put on my robe, and ran. I didn’t walk. I ran.  

“And then I got up and stood in the ring looking out at the crowd, you know, trying to win the game for 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. We moved on to the next round. I didn’t run out. I was slow. Moving. Ali wanted a jab so I shook hands with him and gave him a right. It was good. Even I saw lightning.

“So, the referee counts to eight and then he stopped counting. After bringing it up to 8, he stopped. I just shoved him aside and told him, “Hey! If you want him to get up, let me up!” 

“Get your hands 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. Then he simply put me out and continued the fights.

‘And that’s about it, sir.’

That evening the ER doctor called up his bud at the Texas Monthly magazine, John Spong. The Austin native’s dive down the Elmo rabbit hole produced his piece The Shot Not Heard Round The World – Henderson’s megaphone. 

Spong is a father to two and has an unmistakably Southern sensibility. The hospital was just a few blocks away from my house so I went to the shelter and searched for Spong. 

Muhammad Ali, pictured in Kinshasa before the Rumble, crossed paths with Elmo in 1972

Muhammad Ali (pictured in Kinshasa just before the Rumble) and Elmo met in 1972

“He’d been sharing his story so much that the owner of the restaurant was beginning to think he might write a book. Because he was always looking for the right person to tell his story, he would go around searching for the best. 

“I don’t trust people like that. They are often fake and manipulative. However, I enjoyed spending time with him. He was so friendly and engaging that it made me want to just keep talking to him. 

There are about three to four times in his story that can be used as a guideline. You see the fight in Corpus Christi, Texas in the 1960’s. And you think, “Oh, that he won a light-heavyweight title.” 

“Then, there is the sparring between Foreman and Foreman. Oh, he’s in this movie about Rumble in Jungle, which won an Oscar (“When We Were Kings”) 

“He claims he sued Norman Mailer, and won lots of money in Corpus Christi. Oh, and the lawyer is still there, and supports the entire thing. Every time I pulled on the thread instead of it unravelling, it got cooler. 

A Google image search only returns Henderson shots in the first row. He created his Wikipedia page seven years ago, after Texas Monthly. There are no scraps of information online beyond that. 

Ali is widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time

Ali is widely recognized as being the greatest heavyweight boxer ever.

Elmo’s memories were beginning to fade by 2004. He had lost his entire universe by the moment he saw Ali. 

The forgotten boxers include the sparring partners. The sparring partners of boxing are often forgotten. They took as many punches and brains as their champions in the sport’s earlier days, but they never had a safe net to deal with the unintended consequences.  

Foreman’s fists scared the entire world. Foreman’s fists would make adults flinch at their TVs as they scanned the barrel. Elmo, on the other hand, was brave enough to take a terrifying number of bombs from the gym. Elmo was more than just a sparring partner during his prime, and he received an equally unfeeling ejection from the gym as most fighters who had it.   

Unfortunately, Spong never got a call from Foreman asking for information about the Ali impersonator. 

Regardless of how plausible his tale was, the October night sent our Texan traveller on his way to Foreman in Zaire.  

In 1972, Muhammad Ali put on an actual exhibition in San Antonio. It’s also true that the bell did ring for Elmo Henderson against The Greatest. 

Elmo has many myths. 

His story is quite challenging. Elmo was discovered by another Vallejo reporter in 2007 at Times-Herald.  

Henderson was born in 1935. His father Maurice Henderson described Henderson to the reporter, “a pimp who got 13 children”, couldn’t keep steady employment, and spent time in prison. 

Elmo claimed Maurice had shot and killed his grandfather. They gave him five years in prison. They put him on probation, or some similar. He made a mess.   

At 14 years old, the Texan left school and said that he found work at the docks as a bar bouncer and in an ice cream factory. Aged 19, Elmo was labouring in a steel mill when he first stepped between the ropes, sparring a friend. 

Elmo was able to spin, spin and weave quickly with his 65-kg frame. He also threw stinging jabs at opponents. BoxRec records nine fights (5-0-1) between 1954 and 1958, and ends the decade with an unanimity loss to Curtis Cokes, IBO Hall of Famer & welterweight champion.    

Elmo was once the light-heavyweight champion of Texas but later returned to its streets

Elmo, once Texas’ light-heavyweight champion, later returned to the streets. 

He vanished from the arena. Elmo claimed that he defeated the Texan midweight champion inside, and his 12-month sentence in prison for nabbing a TV was reduced. Upon being released, he joined a busy fight scene in Corpus Christi down by the Mexico border – on the recommendation of a murderer he’d done time with. 

Through the 1960’s, Elmo participated in 26 fights. He was known for his charismatic personality, loud showmanship, and lightning-right-hand. Spong remembers Elmo in cap and gown, after he seized the Texas light-heavyweight title. 

Elmo was beaten and placed on suspension for a brain test after a 10 round brawl in August 1967 that shocked even old-school boxing commissioners. “The Professor” instead flew to Australia, where he defeated the promising Bobby Dunlop 22 years old. Elmo lost the match in Sydney and was then rumbled by California’s Athletic Commission. 

Then he truly was back at square one – behind bars again in ’68 for another year, after cops found marijuana in his pockets. Four months after Ali, he resumed fighting on March 1971.    

‘Good afternoon ladies, don’t mind me. Henderson, a complete 33-year-old veteran, would tell you that all he did was “whup Ali”, tipped his cap, and beaming. 

Spong stated that he enjoyed Spong’s company. Spong said that he enjoyed his conversation because it was different, creative, entertaining, and informative. He was also funny. His stories were so bizarre and amazing, it was like he had come from another time.

Spong regularly received voicemails recorded on borrowed phones by a man only identifiable as ‘Oyé, and often caught him reliving The day once more to crowds of engrossed strangers, newspaper clipping in hand. 

Elmo's sparring tactics didn't help Foreman in the fight - Ali is pictured landing a big right hand

Foreman lost because of Elmo’s sparring strategies. Ali was pictured landing big right hands.

Most of Elmo’s boxing past could be backed-up with thorough research but that San Antonio knockout and Ali’s supposed second defeat was missing – even among the mountain of minute details recorded from the champ’s career. 

Henderson, the hazy memories of elderly bystanders and contradictory reports from news sources all pointed to one fact: Elmo actually connected with Ali that night. There is some debate about the punch’s ferocity as well as its consequences.  

Split reports from San Antonio newspapers. There were two versions of the San Antonio newspapers’ reports. ExpressHenderson claimed that Ali danced better and Henderson made more beautiful faces than Ali. Light were less impressed: ‘The audience booed the lack of action in the first round but Ali displayed his famous left jab and footwork in the second, let his knees sag after a light blow to the jaw, then stalked a surprised referee as if he intended to work him over.’ 

Joe Souza was at that Muhammad Ali Boxing Show, and he spoke with Texas Monthly about Elmo winding Ali up. ‘Elmo went to the press conference and began fooling Ali, while Ali was speaking. 

“So Ali began to make jabs at Elmo for playing around. Elmo calmly stopped them off and talked back to Ali. He never quit talking.’

As for the fight: ‘Ronnie Wright was going on second and said to Elmo “don’t agitate this man. “I go on the next and don’t want to be beaten with all that stuffing.” 

It was a mere exhibition. Elmo chases after him. Ali got pissed, and Ali took it out of Ronnie. Ronnie was furious about the incident. He said, “Elmo, you son of a b****! Why did you rile him up?”’ 

Truth lies in the confusion.  

Spong explains: ‘I can’t imagine there was any kind of genuine hostility towards Ali. Elmo was happy and he enjoyed telling stories. I never witnessed any hostility from him. He seemed to be happy just going about his day. 

“He loved to tell stories about his belief that Ali had ended Ali’s career when he broke his jaw. That was how everything would come later. Because Elmo was first a showman, I suspect that this was an attempt to hyperbolize himself. 

Since before he’d ever uttered the words ‘Foreman boma yé,’ Elmo had been a one-man travelling band pitching a script based on real events to anyone. Elmo believed certain details so strongly that the possibility of a payoff was not possible.   

Foreman heads towards the canvas after being caught with a devastating blow from Ali in Zaire

Foreman looks towards the ceiling after Ali has dealt a severe blow to him in Zaire

Henderson, who had dropped his arms to taunt a opponent and ran around the ring arms in a final bound for victory, kept the crowd captive with an encore performance. He never let boxing take away his entertainment’s clarity like it took his intuition. 

Although Ali’s head may not have bounced off of the canvas, Terry Daniels (the Louisville Lip’s headline competitor on the evening) invited Elmo for a sparring match and Elmo was then embedded at the Foreman camp two months later.  Ali was wronged by the Professor. 

‘Oyé… Foreman boma yé’ echoed through Zaire in ’74, as did another catchphrase Elmo held onto: ‘The flea goes in three, Muhammad Ali!’ Chapter 4 of Norman Mailer’s book The Fight was titled: ‘Elmo in Zaire.’     

Foreman was chasing the flea on the ropes and his chants became silent. He saw Foreman’s strength seep away with each monstrous punch Ali dodged or parried, and watched his employer buckle, stumble and topple in the eighth round – escorted all the way by Ali’s loaded right-hand.     

Foreman chose Elmo, one of his six training partner to be his last spar before the Rumble. Mailer was ringside, and described the session: ‘Foreman concentrated on the central theme of his work – cut off the ring on Ali, drive him to the ropes, force him to the corner, extinguish him. 

“Elmo” was there as the flea that went in three. This was a tragic role, Elmo played the clown face who loaned Ali his last extremity. Yes, Elmo did a moving imitation, showing Ali how he would use every trick and feint while circling Foreman. But George would take the lead in the ballet. 

The two men sparred without heavy punches. They just tapped on their gloves and made small snaps. Elmo was thrilled with Foreman. Both men boxed in the silence of asylum walls, the lack of sound in Henderson’s movements as full of presence as the sudden clangour of any ‘oyé’ he would cry on the other hours.’   

Mailer was also in trouble for the same article, which cost Elmo some serious cash. Per a 1977 New York Times story, the antagonising journalistic titan falsely described Henderson as a former patient at Nevada mental institution. Mailer was unable to save Elmo, who sued him for $1million. He was required to contribute $105,000.

Spong was told by Elmo that he had received $40,000 while Vallejo’s reporter got $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.

By a split decision, Spinks stunned Muhammad Ali in 1978. Elmo’s second knockout hit or Revenge on Foreman’s behalf? 

Leon Spinks lands a blow on Ali on the way to a surprise win against the ageing champ in 1978

Leon Spinks hits Ali with a punch on his way to surprising victory against the old champ in 1978

Elmo didn’t know how he had gotten here until he found himself sitting opposite Texas Monthly’s John Spong in an Austin eatery. 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. 

Many of the Rumble’s protagonists and those from that golden era have passed away. Foreman, 72 now, but Mailer in 2007 and Ali in 2016 are both dead. Henderson, now 86. 

Spong received calls from ‘Oyé’ long after he published the results of his brilliant piece. Elmo was able to finally make his newspaper clipping into a new glossy magazine issue. 

“He bought copies of the magazine, and took them on the roads to give to others,” the Texan said. “I think he traveled to Oklahoma, and every three to four years I would get a call by someone he’d met in the street,” the Texan stated. 

“He had done the same thing with me except that he pulled out the Texas Monthly clip to tell his story. People would then reach out. 

‘The most vivid memory I have is when he had been accosted at an Oakland bus stop by someone who was not fully coherent. His voice sounded tired. 

Spong began to lose contact with Elmo around the middle of the past decade. His whereabouts are a mystery. He could have been there one day and gone the next. 

Albert Carl Henderson is a great example of a moving stone. Whichever phase of his wandering journey Elmo is on now, ‘Oyé’.