Movies We Like
The canon of films (both documentary and dramatic) about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali continues to grow and has to be richer than that of any other athlete in history. It helps that Ali had such a fascinating, controversial and (eventually) revered life. The list would start with Ali playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest. Then, a curiosity: the TV movie Freedom Road, which Ali starred in as an ex-slave who became a senator. Ali even provided his own voice for the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. Will Smith played him in the underrated Michael Mann bio Ali. And on TV, Terrence Howard took his swing in King of the World, as did David Ramsey (a college classmate of mine) in Ali: An American Hero. Actors also pop up playing him in supporting roles in Don King: Only in America and Phantom Punch, while he is only talked about in the more recent Stephen Fears film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (as his fight with the United States over his draft status for the Vietnam war is decided by the Supreme Court). The documentary front has too many films to list, going at least as far back as 1970 with AKA Cassius Clay. Other highlights include Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World and The Trials of Muhammad Ali from earlier this year. And of course, the greatest of all is still the Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings. And just about every documentary on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements usually has a chapter on the guy.
Finding a different angle on telling the whole Ali story is Facing Ali from 2009. Director Pete McCormack interviews Ali’s boxing opponents and surprisingly creates about as all-encompassing a documentary as there has been on the man. Whereas When We Were Kings really centers on the Ali/ George Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” bout and veers off occasionally for backstory, Facing Ali moves back and forth on the timeline and manages to include all his historical highlights: winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the mega upset against Sonny Liston, joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay and infuriating the white press and boxing establishment, and of course, his heroic battle against the Vietnam draft (which put his career on hold for many years during his peak). But where the movie goes that can really excite a budding Ali-phile are the details of the non-historic fights, especially after his return in the '70s when he re-won and then lost the title of champ and then won it back.
The boxers who are interviewed (and nicely have their stories told as well) range from superstars like Foreman, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes to lesser names like George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers and Ernie Terrell, as well as two guys who beat and then lost to Ali, Ken Norton and (my favorite) Leon Spinks (he lived blocks away from me, growing up in Detroit). All of the pugilists lend fascinating details to the Ali legend and most reminisce with glee about their connections to him. Cooper, a British fighter who fought Ali twice earlier in his career, recalls how Ali said that Cooper "had hit him so hard that his ancestors in Africa felt it.” Holmes, who started as an Ali sparring partner, credits Ali with helping to make him the man he was. Lyle's backstory is especially interesting; having gone to prison for second degree murder, he learned to box in prison and reinvented himself a superstar athlete. And of course Terrell, who famously kept smugly referring to Ali by his old name, Clay, and took a major beating in the ring for it.
After the exhausting, classic fight against Frazier, “The Thrilla in Manila” and his fights with Spinks, Ali announced his retirement in ‘79. But instead of going quietly into the night, he came back and lost to Holmes (for financial reasons). Many consider this fighting past his prime as abetting in his physical issues that were then starting to appear: the shakiness and stutters. Eventually, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease (which many speculate came from too many blows to the head). Ironically and sadly, Ali--a guy with world-class charisma--is now unable to communicate vocally.
Though these fighters were fierce opponents and even arch rivals, they all pay tribute to Ali’s overall character and importance to both boxing and cultural history. Facing Ali is a wonderfully made film with the perfect talking heads to actual footage ratio. For anyone--whether as an introduction to Ali or for the advanced Ali fan looking for more information on the subject--it’s a perfect way to celebrate one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century.