Even though there have been numerous documentaries on “The Greatest,” I still went to see “I Am Ali” when it was released in theaters and on demand on October 10. I am a sucker for boxing documentaries and I like to think every fan of the sport is too.
Fans often say that boxing needs a league akin to Major League Baseball or the NFL to bring order to the sport. That may be, but the lack of one is why boxing has brought us some of the best sports documentaries of the past 20 years. One does not have to go through a league to get to the truth of the story they are trying to tell and that makes for powerful cinema.
All great movies are special in their own way so it is almost impossible to rank movies from best to worst. However, here are ten boxing documentaries worth checking out.
Assault in the Ring (2008): The 1983 Billy Collins/Luis Resto fight in which Resto and his trainer, Panama Lewis, were convicted of assault for removing padding from his gloves is the one of the ugliest incidents in boxing history. Filmmaker Eric Drath’s documentary, which follows Resto as he tries to make amends, stays with you but matches that event’s sleaziness. A few years later, Drath filmed Sugar Ray Leonard’s reunion with Roberto Duran in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “No Más,” but their meeting does not have the impact that Resto’s and Collins’ does in his first film. Note: This film is also known as “Cornered: A Life in the Ring.”
26 Years: The Dewey Bozella Story (2012): After having his wrongful conviction of murder overturned after 26 years in prison, 52-year-old Dewey Bozella fulfills his dream of having one professional fight. The drama in this ESPN documentary does not come in the fight, but with Bozella’s attempt to be licensed.
Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story (2001): This seven-hour documentary spans Ali’s entire career and includes full rounds from many fights not shown on ESPN Classic. Those looking for salaciousness will be disappointed, but this is a must-have for those looking for comprehensive information.
When We Were Kings (1996): This Oscar-winning documentary tells the full story of the “Rumble in the Jungle.” What made it special was the fact that almost the entire movie was unseen footage from 1974 that captures the importance of the moment and the charisma of Ali.
Thrilla in Manila (2008): The 1975 rubber match between Ali and the late Joe Frazier is one of the greatest fights of all time, but one cannot think of it without thinking about the bitterness that Frazier carried into his final days. This HBO documentary captures the nastiness of the rivalry through interviews with Frazier and a shockingly blunt Ferdie Pacheco. In the end, you just wish Frazier could have let it go.
Muhammad and Larry (2009): Like “When We Were Kings,” almost all of the footage for this documentary was shot in the weeks leading up to “The Last Hurrah” and not released for more than two decades. While “Kings” captures the greatness of Ali, this one shows how far he had deteriorated. Maybe those around him could not see it because it happened gradually over time, but as you watch this documentary, you are heartbroken that the fight even took place.
Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth (2013): I was fortunate to see Tyson’s one-man show when it came through Washington, D.C. While the filmed version on Broadway does not include his ribbing of former brother-in-law and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, it captures the essence of the most polarizing fighter of the past 30 years. It makes you cringe, shake your head in disgust, sympathize and laugh.
Legendary Nights: The Tale of Chavez/Taylor (2003): One of the most controversial and saddest moments in boxing history is discussed in detail in this excellent series from HBO. The network revisited the tale of Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward last year. Boxing fans would love to see them do the same with the story of Meldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez.
J.C. Chavez (2007): Actor Diego Luna made his directorial debut with this documentary that accompanies Chavez as he closes out his career with retirement fights. When we join him, the legendary fighter is 42 and his skills have vastly diminished and the movie is more about him coming to terms with it and retiring with grace.
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004): The greatest documentarian takes on the most fascinating fighter in the history of the sport. Despite having limited footage at his disposal, Ken Burns captures the brutality of boxing and the hostility Jack Johnson faced greeting each day on his own terms. Every boxing fan should spend the four hours required to view this documentary.