Muhammad Ali is one of the most beguiling figures of the previous half-century.
His place in boxing history is undeniable. 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 episode remains unmatched. The shadow he casts in boxing is vast, and his record speaks for itself. According to Ring Magazine, three-time World Champion and the number one heavyweight boxer in history.
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 worldwide. This despite conversion to the Nation of Islam, a name change, and refusal to be drafted and fight in Vietnam. This sport and global media diplomacy achievement are more significant than anything he accomplished in boxing. Without Ali, one could argue there is no Michael Jordan, Oprah, or Obama. His contributions to tearing down barriers of race cannot be overstated. It is 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 a 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 unique approach 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 all the 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. What comes across more than anything in Facing Ali is the sense of respect and gratitude all these fighters feel towards Ali and have been able to intersect with his orbit. Even Joe Frazier, long critical of “Cassius Clay,” comes across as the softest I have seen him.
This is not a very critical documentary and offers up little of the ambiguity toward Ali of last year’s terrific Thrilla in Manilla HBO documentary. Perhaps this is because it was made with the cooperation of the Ali legacy. While it is clear that Ali fought too long and that boxing may have contributed to his current condition, those who faced him don’t seem to mind. This is a problem 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 hear from the show’s star, Ali himself. We get a few recent images, and that’s it. This silence provides all the perspective we need.
Excellent documentary and a nice addition to Ali’s legacy on film.