Muhammad Ali is one of the most beguiling figures of the previous half century.
His place in boxing history is undeniable. With his colorful personality, quick wit, and seemingly endless charisma took the sport to another level riding on the back of the evolution of media from black-and-white TV and AM radio to the pay-per-view mega-events most major bouts are today. It is impossible to consider what boxing has become without considering Ali. His innate savvy of hyping himself and his bout remain unmatched. The shadow he casts in boxing is huge, and his record speaks for itself. Three time World Champion, and number one heavyweight boxer in history according to Ring Magazine.
He was also the most visible person of color during the tension filled sixties (and beyond). He became a globally recognized figure and hero to people all over the world. This despite a conversion to the Nation of Islam, a name change, and refusal to be drafted and fight in Vietnam. This achievement in sport and global media diplomacy is more significant than anything he accomplished in boxing. Without Ali, one could argue, there is no Michael Jordan, no Oprah, and no Obama. His contributions to tearing down barriers of race cannot be overstated. It impossible to separate his boxing career from his achievement with race relations.
This lack of separation is what makes Ali such a beguiling figure. Boxing is a brutal sport. People get hurt in the ring, sometimes for life. Michael Jordan may have stayed in basketball too long, but no one suspects overstaying his welcome caused any physical or mental damage.
Facing Ali is documentary by Pete McCormack (based on a book by Stephen Brunt) from Lionsgate that tells the Ali story solely through the recollection of 10 who opposed Ali in the ring. This is a unique approach that hasn’t been seen before, and has an appeal that should extend beyond fight fans.
In varying degrees, in telling the stories of their bouts, these fighters capture the all hubris that surrounded Ali during his career. The good, the great, and the not so great are all told with video clips and photo montages as the fighters narrate. One can’t help but be impressed by Ali’s triumphs in the ring and out.
George Chuvalo is the most articulate of the opponents presented and what comes across more than anything in Facing Ali is the sense of respect and gratitude all these fighters feel towards Ali and having been able to intersect with his orbit. Even Joe Frazier, long critical of “Cassius Clay” comes across the most soft I have seen him.
This is not a very critical documentary and offers up little of the ambiguity toward Ali of lasts years’ terrific Thrilla in Manilla HBO documentary. Perhaps this is because it was made with the cooperation of the Ali legacy. While it is clear Ali fought too long and that boxing may have attributed to his current condition, those that faced him don’t really seem to mind. This is the conundrum that could have been explored more. How do you get any perspective in this sport when you are this man or opposing him. The answer is, you don’t.
Sadly we never get to hear from the star of the show, Ali himself. We get a few recent images, that’s it. This silence provides all the perspective we need.
Great documentary and nice addition to Ali’s legacy on film.