Stan Hochman: Documentary on Ali could be 'the greatest'

Posted: April 12, 2010

MUHAMMAD ALI was not the greatest of all time! Even if he said he was. Said it often. Shouted it loud enough to rattle windows in the suburbs, where white folks lived.

Ali had huge talent and an ego to match. Ali could be kind and he could be cruel. Charm-the-fuzz-off-a-peach kind, slash-the-jugular cruel. Ali dared to be different and he warned us all, "I don't have to be what you want me to be."

"Facing Ali" might not be the best boxing documentary ever made, but if it isn't, it's right there in the top three - powerful, poignant, an earthy tribute to the glory that was Ali and heavyweight boxing in the '70s.

The film squanders little time on the myths that have grown up around Ali like gilded lillies, civil-rights activist, anti-war martyr. Instead, the focus is on 10 other fighters, 10 guys who fought Ali, 10 guys who walked through the stinging rain of taunts and insults to trade punches with him.

Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, George Chuvalo, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, Ernie Terrell, Sir Henry Cooper. Not a robotic Russian named Klitschko among them. Every one of them with a fascinating story to tell, some of them groping through spider-webbed memory, some of them crisply articulate, all of them a testimonial to the brotherhood of boxing.

Frazier looks battered, sounds weary. He says his first fight with Ali "has to be the greatest fight in the history of the world." Why? "Because they stopped the war for an hour-and-a-half."

Joe says that he wasn't rattled by Ali's prattling about fear. "I'd go into the jungle," Joe rasps, "and fight a lion with a toothpick."

The nasty insults are in there, Ali jiggling a rubber gorilla in Frazier's angry face. But here, for perhaps the first time, there's some forgiveness from Frazier, some empathy for Ali, shuddering with Parkinson's, that loud mouth muffled by illness. "Maybe he could live the kind of life we live," Joe says softly. "He earned that."

Some of the other fighters praise Frazier, for his pit-bull tenacity. Only Foreman, slick as eel-sweat, demeans Frazier's intelligence when talking about Ali ridiculing Joe as an "Uncle Tom."

"He [Frazier] told me he didn't want his wife thinking he was looking [peeping] through windows," Foreman says. "He didn't even know what an Uncle Tom was."

There's more from Foreman, the weak explanation of why he flaunted a tiny American flag at the Mexico City Olympics, the backlash when he got home to Texas, the epiphany of finding God in a "stinking" Puerto Rican locker room after beating Jimmy Young, and the crucifixion-type bleeding that mysteriously followed.

Chuvalo is amazing, having suffered the anguish of three sons dying of drug abuse and a wife's suicide. He sneers at Sonny Liston's efforts in his second fight with Ali. "He took a dive," Chuvalo grumbles.

He declares Ali's first fight with Liston "his greatest fight ever." He mocks Foreman's behavior before his Zaire loss to Ali. He has a sordid tale about how he finally got his fight with Ali and how afterwards, "Ali went to the hospital with bleeding kidneys and I went dancing with my wife."

He talks about his mother plucking chickens for a half-cent a chicken. "Two-hundred chickens to make a dollar," Chuvalo says. He talks about his father visiting the factory while on vacation to see two men doing the work he did, painfully, with a shattered arm that never mended properly.

Lyle talks about doing pushups in solitary confinement, about learning how to fight his way off the ropes while in prison.

Terrell sings a parody about Ali, "ain't it a shame, you changed your name . . . I'll change your features, too." Only to have Ali pound him mercilessly in Houston, shouting "What's my name?" between vicious punches.

Norton scoffs at Ali's claim that Ali fought valiantly with a jaw broken in the second round. He says he broke Ali's jaw in the next-to-last round.

His speech is halting, his voice scratchy, the result of a horrific wreck, his car plunging 40 feet off a freeway ramp.

He speaks painfully of a bitter divorce, of the custody fight for his son, of the bleak days that followed. "There were times," he sighs, "when a gourmet meal for me and my son was a hot dog."

Cooper speaks of knighthood and royalty and praises Ali for his chin, his heart, his fast hands. Leon Spinks remembers thanking Ali for giving him "a chance" at the heavyweight championship.

And Holmes talks sadly about his one-sided fight with an empty Ali. "I was able to go straight in," Holmes recalls, "and do what I wanted to do, because there was nothing coming back at me."

It is a brilliantly crafted film, full of twists and abrupt mood changes, spliced with enough fight action to satisfy the purists. You see the gifts and the flaws of Muhammad Ali through the unblinking eyes of 10 men who fought him. A different, dazzling view.

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