He knew which side he was on, on a series of these questions, when the leading edge of politics, of the so-called “experts,” were so patently wrong.
— Dave Zirin, 9 April 2007
His name got magic.
— Earnie Shavers
Muhammad Ali changed his name in 1964. It was just after he first won his first heavyweight championship, from Sonny Liston, signaling both his conversion to the Nation of Islam and independence from his past. Most sportswriters and editors didn’t take him seriously. Despite his upset victory over Liston, Ali — whom they continued to call Cassius Clay — seemed to those who were telling his story too callow and cocksure. Even if he was entertaining when he declared himself The Greatest, he hadn’t proved it yet.
Of course, Ali would go on to prove that and more. Over decades of remarkable dedication and brilliant performance, he took on all manner of challenges, from political to religious to legal. According to Ron Lyle, one of 10 boxers who remember fighting Muhammad Ali in Facing Ali, the champ brought extraordinary resolve and inspiration to boxing. “This is what built America,” asserts Lyle. “Every freaking one of us have shed our blood in this ring. But when Ali come in the game, he just took it to another level, a step above the crowd.”
This step above is the focus of Facing Ali, one of 15 documentaries on the Academy Awards shortlist, and recently released to DVD. As the fighters encountered Ali at different stages in his long career, Facing Ali provides not only a range of perspectives, but also covers a wide swath of time and diverse experiences. Each man tells a tale of poverty, ambition, and hard work. Sir Henry Cooper, the British fighter Ali faced in 1963, recalls the instruction of his father, a World War I veteran who took up boxing as an avocation, and the Canadian champion George Chuvalo recalls hardships suffered by his Croatian immigrant parents, as well as his own losses (three sons who died of drug addictions and a wife whose grief led her to suicide). Leon Spinks says that growing up “in the projects, it was pretty tough and I was the first child I was the punching bag for all the guys in the neighborhood.” And Lyle came out of prison, where he served a sentence for second degree murder.
Such experiences speak to the perpetual complications of boxing, a sport and industry well known for its brutality, corruption, and sensationalism, that also provides means to transformation, of selves and futures. Ali expanded such possibilities, grandly and always, seemingly, consciously. With a brief nod to the start of his world recognition — black and white footage shows gold medalist Ali and his Olympic teammates at the 1960 Summer Games — Pete McCormack’s compelling documentary goes on to reframe Ali’s life and work as a complex process, at once historical, cultural, and political, a process that extended beyond him but kept circling back to him: he changed the world around him. Most obviously, Ali’s own focus on transformation has to do with race and racism. He rejected epithets and used his quickness — in his voice as well as in his fine-tuned body — to demand respect. As Ernie Terrell remembers, from the moment Ali walked into Angelo Dundee’s gym in 1958, “He meant a lot to black people, to the black community. And he means a lot to the black community today.” It’s worth noting that In a business where black men were exploited and feared, Ali asserted his blackness — as well as his intelligence and poetry.
Ali’s resistance to systemic oppressions was made famous in his religious conversion and also in his refusal to go to Vietnam. The film structures its history through the fighters’ personal experiences, sometimes contextualized. While George Foreman — who eventually fought Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, 1974 — recalls that 1968 “was a wonderful time for me” (he says he was “rescued from the gutter” by boxing), Ali was making his four-year legal case against the U.S. draft, as a conscientious objector. When Ali returned to boxing in 1970, few thought he would come back as strong as he had been. He fought Jerry Quarry in Georgia (the only state without a boxing commission, and therefore, open to him before the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and he was officially reinstated) and then Oscar Bonavena at the Garden.
The following year, he fought Joe Frazier for the title, in the “Fight of the Century” at the Garden. Frazier’s own story — he recalls growing up in the South (“We had racial problems with my white brothers”) and finding a future in Philadelphia’s gyms — is set alongside Ken Norton’s (who also won against Ali in the early ’70s). Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw in 1973, survived a nearly fatal car accident in 1986; told that Ali came to visit him in the hospital, Norton is grateful to this day for the fight with Ali: “He was a life saver, a career saver. I can’t thank him enough for giving me the chance.”
Foreman’s recollection of the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire reveals his efforts to process his opponent’s famously wily strategy. As Ali took punch after punch, Foreman says, he kept believing he had the title won. “I tried every shot in the world,” he says. “And he started whispering, ‘Is that all you got?'” Lyle adds here that Ali “played a trick that got into his head,” as Chuvalo asserts, “He did it with such guile, it was beautiful.” For his part, Larry Holmes recalls Ali’s prodigious capacity with women: “He had his pick, you hear what I’m saying?” While the film includes familiar footage of crowds chanting “Ali bomaye,” Foreman cedes, “He found something to fight for other than money and championship belts,” and that something helped him to win, again and again, in multiple realms.
Facing Ali closes with observations of Ali now. If the fighters worry about the connections between his profession and his “disposition” to Parkinson’s, they also admire Ali in every possible way. Their personal experiences, told in their own styles and self-presentations, provide an unusual and welcome set of contexts for Ali’s powerful story.