The wonderful film “When We Were Kings” chronicled the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Besides garnering an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film for 1997, its tremendous mainstream appeal made it the documentary boxing film by which all others should be measured.
While one might wonder what more could be said about the great Ali and the social impact he had on the world, they need not look further than director Pete McCormack’s “Facing Ali,” a wonderfully, though-provoking and inspiring 2009 film that was just released on DVD.
McCormack traces the trajectory of Ali’s career, from his days as a loud-mouthed amateur even before he won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, to his embrace of Islam, which should resonate even more with younger viewers in light of what’s happening in today’s world.
He follows Ali’s defiant refusal to be inducted into the armed forces to serve in Vietnam, a war that was as unpopular as today’s overseas conflicts, his three championship reigns, and his ongoing status as a global hero despite the tremendous physical and mental handicaps he lives with today.
While it can be argued that all of this has been done before, and that there is no more to be said, McCormack masterfully weaves the lives and trajectories of 10 of Ali’s most formidable opponents to give this film its knockout punch.
George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Ernie Terrell, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, George Chuvalo and Henry Cooper don’t just tell the story of what their bouts against Ali meant to them from a personal perspective. They are intelligent, eloquent and erudite enough to comprehend the enormity of the historical significance their fights with Ali had from both sporting and social standpoints.
Ali came of age in the early 1960s, just as the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. It might be hard for younger viewers with no real sense of history to realize just how much has changed in the world between the times that these fighters, all of whom are now in their sixties or seventies, were growing up as youngsters and later developing as fighters.
Shavers, for example, speaks of being a terrified young child at his family’s farm in the Deep South when angry Ku Klux Klan members raided the house. They were looking to kill his father for not being able to make a payment on a loan. Realizing that they were coming that night, his father had fled to Ohio and later sent for his family to join him.
Chuvalo talks proudly of his parents, both of whom had immigrated to Canada from their native Croatia, and how they toiled for decades at tedious, menial vocations. Despite having a permanently damaged arm, his father didn’t miss a day of work in 40 years. And not a day went by that he didn’t voice his thanks to Canada for giving him a job.
Lyle had been sent to prison for murder at a young age. During his many years in solitary confinement, he often subsisted on nothing more than a bowl of spinach a day. With the little strength and nourishment offered by that meager amount of food, he still managed to pound out 300 push-ups a day in his dank, damp cell.
Once he made his way back into the general population, where he was fed three square meals a day, he worked his way up to doing 1,000 sit-ups an hour. The duality of prison and boxing tales are nothing new, but what really rocks you is Lyle describing how he could relate to Ali’s anti-war stance because his own brother had been killed while fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.
McCormack must have personally selected these opponents because all are astutely aware of the link between their relationship with Ali, as both fighters and ordinary men who hailed from divergent backgrounds, during the particularly memorable decades in which they lived and fought.
Fight fans will love the manner in which these opponents discuss their often failed strategies against The Greatest, while other viewers will be enthralled by the way the intertwining lives of these mesmerizing characters are juxtaposed.
From McCormack’s perspective, these fighters were not just bit players in the Ali saga. The way he sees it, it was their unique personal stories that were tantamount to creating the Ali legacy that shows no sign of abating.
Terrell and Frazier, for example, were both demeaned by Ali as being Uncle Tom’s, meaning they were subservient to the white establishment. It could be argued that Frazier, the son of a one-armed sharecropper, was blacker than Ali could ever be. Ali’s grandmother was white, and he was raised in a comfortable middle class home in Louisville.
And Terrell, who despite being black did not ascribe to the Nation of Islam’s extremist thoughts, was basically “punished” by Ali for having the audacity to disagree with him. During their fight, after continually beating Terrell to the punch, Ali followed up by demanding to know “What’s my Name?” This was in response to Terrell’s steadfast refusal to call him by his post-conversion name of Ali, preferring instead to call him by his pre-conversion surname of Clay.
Despite an abundance of mixed feelings during their ring encounters and in later years, all of the opponents are extremely thoughtful, soulful and decent men who seem genuinely saddened by the current physical and mental condition of Ali.
Most importantly, they seem to understand that they are much more than footnotes in boxing history. The reality is that they are as much of a part of the Ali myth as the man himself. It just took a director of McCormack’s skill and insight to make what now seems obvious so readily apparent.
On McCormack’s web site, he wrote that meeting all of the opponents was “a completely wonderful, insightful, nostalgic, fantastic, surreal experience. To seek their story, their soul, and try to capture that in one film – what an opportunity. May watching it be the same intense and joyful and enlightening experience for you.”
Every once in a while a film, or a particular performance in a film, really touches my soul. Immediately after seeing Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry” and Charlize Theron in “Monster,” I knew in my heart that they would be Oscar winners.
The same thing happened after watching Jeff Bridges in the recently released gem of a movie called “Crazy Heart.”
And I can’t stop thinking about or saying enough good things about “Facing Ali.” Not only should it be required viewing for boxing and social science buffs, but also for every high school or college student in America who is covering the tumultuous eras in which these great fighters, and honorable men, squared off against each other.
“Facing Ali” might just be the documentary of the decade, and in my opinion is more than deserving of recognition come Oscar time.
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