The incomparable quality of heavyweight boxing in the 60s and ‘70s was not due to Muhammad Ali: his was a timeless talent and a transcendent charisma that would have illuminated any era. What made the period so extraordinary was the number of Ali’s competitors who, had they fought in other decades, would have stood clear as the best boxer in the world.
The great achievements of Champions Forever are, firstly, that its makers recognised this and, secondly, that they managed to persuade four of these fighters — Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton and Larry Holmes — to be interviewed here alongside Ali. The film documents the careers of the five former champions, insofar as they impacted on one another, using individual interviews, a unique group discussion chaired by baseball superstar Reggie Jackson and, of course, footage from their unparalleled cycle of fights.
It’s a truth long known to Hollywood screenwriters that former boxers can, even without being immensely eloquent, say things that are immensely revealing: the slurred asides and matter-of-fact discussion of the physical prowess, and punishment, that is routine for them but unimaginable for the audience often provide sharp insights into the psyche of anyone who can devote their life to fighting the best fighters on earth. It is this that powers James Toback’s 2009 Tyson and it is this that makes Champions Forever so compulsive.
What’s more, director Dmitri Logothetis understands exactly the dramatic rhythm of his material — which fights were incidental and which were either important then or are illustrative now — and so creates a taut and consistently interesting ‘plot’ from a story (or rather, five stories) that could easily become muddled or just as easily be oversimplified.
His plot begins with Ali (or rather Cassius Clay), lithe and athletic, brash and beautiful, starting his astonishing ascent towards his status as the most iconic and controversial athlete alive. Soon, Joe Frazier’s story filters in, as then does Foreman’s, and they bring with them excitement and tension beyond the reach of scripted thrillers or action movies. After 90 minutes that feel like 30, we close with the pathetic and disturbing sight of Ali — too old, too heavy and already impaired by Parkinson’s disease — making an ill-conceived comeback against a fit and fearsome Larry Holmes.
(Cleverly, the opening credits are preceded with images of a similarly sad spectacle: Holmes, aged 38, returning from retirement to fight, and to be thrashed by, a young Mike Tyson. The oft-referenced inability of boxers to know when their time in the spotlight is over has never been as tellingly demonstrated as it is by the footage that bookends Champions Forever.)
Though it is its straightforward storytelling and refusal to take tangents that keep the film so lively, there are some lamentable omissions. For example, there is no discussion of the psychological implosion suffered by George Foreman after his loss to Ali (something explained with succinct brilliance by Norman Mailer in the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings), and so his abrupt decision to leave boxing to become a Christian minister is not given its proper context.
Also, we hear too little from Joe Frazier — who is, as John Dower’s 2008 Thriller in Manilla proved, interesting enough to sustain a documentary of his own. Considered as a whole, though, Champions Forever has very few failings and even fewer that are noticeable to anyone but die hard devotees of the subject.
But there is one failing that is very noticeable indeed: the music. The rip-off Rocky score used during certain fights and the syrupy strings that undermine the more meaningful moments in the interviews are occasionally laughable and always unnecessary. No music can possibly make the sight of Muhammad Ali in prime more dramatic than it was, nor make his reflections on his later infirmities any more poignant than they are. The selling points of this film are its highlight reels of fight footage and the one-off interviews that analyse them; to employ a score that so consistently distracts from both is ludicrously self-defeating.
The selling point of this release is its extras, and specifically its half hour of previously ‘lost’ interviews with Ali. While this is not quite the un-missable material the DVD’s distributors imagine — it is, ultimately, just the footage that didn’t make the film’s final cut — it still captures the most fascinating figure of his age at a time when he was able to talk more extensively than he will ever be able to again. After watching it, there is the feeling of having spent a once-in-a-lifetime afternoon chatting amiably with Muhammad Ali, and it seems unlikely there is anyone in the world who wouldn’t want to do that.
Delightful as the interviews are, though, their inclusion unbalances the DVD by negating the (almost) equal billing Champions Forever gives to each of its subjects, and its unspoken aim of correcting the popular opinion that the years in question were an entirely Ali-centric age. For this DVD package to feel like a true expansion of the documentary it would have to include the previously unseen interviews with the other fighters that were presumably shot during the making of the movie.
It is, though, ultimately unhelpful to compare any DVD to some theoretical version of itself that is never likely to be released. In short, this is, and is always likely to be, the definitive DVD edition of one of the definitive films in its genre. As such, it can be recommended without reservation to anyone with an interest in 20th Century sport.