Facing Ali

tn_facingaliFACING ALI is a great new documentary about Muhammad Ali (out on DVD last week) that tells his story through the eyes of 10 of his opponents. You still get clips of the champ talking, training, fighting, but you hear about these legendary fights from new interviews with the other guys.

Each of them tell a little about their backgrounds, so they have their own interesting stories. Then they tell about the lead up to the fight, what happened, how they felt about it. Some have nothing but respect for Ali, they admire him, even idolize him. Some are still bitter about the way he insulted them, thought he was too mean. But more than one cries when talking about Ali’s Parkinson’s.

mp_facingaliIt’s not just a great portrait of Ali, but of professional boxers in general. You got different races, a couple guys from different countries, but all of them grew up hard, working class, scrapping for money, many of them criminals. Some of them are very articulate, some aren’t, but they all have really good stories to tell. Through the stories of Ali and his opponents this movie crosses paths with mobsters, hitmen, the Vietnam War, the Fruit of Islam, the assassination of Malcolm X, an allegedly thrown fight, a musical performance on the Jack Benny Show, a prison bid and a near death experience. So there’s more than just punching, although yes, there is also alot of punching involved.

Although they talk alot about the importance of Ali to black America it’s a white dude, the Canadian champion George Chuvalo, who seems most invested in Ali’s career from afar. He has opinions about everything, including saying that Sonny Liston took a dive because he was threatened by the Nation of Islam. In archive footage they show Chuvalo at the fight, being held back, trying to get in Ali’s face to confront him about it. It’s like REDBELT. But even though he believes that, Chuvalos also seems fiercely protective of Ali’s dignity and respect as The Greatest, for example seeming offended by Larry Holmes “taking advantage of an old man” by defeating him in 1980, two years after he’d famously decided to retire as champion and “get away clean.”

This is a really fascinating new way to look at this story. With a guy like Ali it’s easy to slip into hero worship, so it’s kind of cool that this shows him from the perspective of the guys he punched the shit out of, so you see different sides of him. I always laugh at his boasts and taunts but a couple times this movie made me feel sorry for the people he was insulting, who just weren’t quick-witted enough to get into that type of duel with him, or weren’t about to retaliate when he had the nerve to call them uncle toms. He’s a showman and a funny guy but you realize sometimes he’s a bully. At the same time that you’re accepting that, though, your respect for him is raising as you see what a hero he is even to these people he left in the dust.

The filmatism is good too – great jazz and soul soundtrack, artfully lit interviews with shadows filling out the crags on the boxers’ aging faces, gorgeously restored archive footage, energetic editing, smartly structured. It’s a great movie especially for somebody like me who loves Ali but doesn’t know shit about boxing.

“Hey Vern, do you watch boxing?”
“Nah, just documentaries.”

There’s alot of information about Ali out there. Obviously WHEN WE WERE KINGS is one of the all time great sports documentaries, and his life has been dramatized both by Will Smith and by himself in a TV movie, and many of his fights are available on DVD. So it’s impressive to see somebody come up with such a smart idea for a new angle on the champ, and to execute it well. Also impressive is that this was produced by Spike TV. I guess some of that money they get for running Ax Bodyspray ads all fuckin day goes to some good every once in a while.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 at 2:22 am and is filed under Documentary, Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

22 Responses to “Facing Ali”

  1. **”[I]t’s kind of cool that this shows him from the perspective of the guys he punched the shit out of, so you see different sides of him. I always laugh at his boasts and taunts but a couple times this movie made me feel sorry for the people he was insulting, who just weren’t quick-witted enough to get into that type of duel with him, or weren’t about to retaliate. . .”**

    Quick with the tongue–bumblebee-like, you might say– as he is with the fist, Muhammad Ali was the co-greatest athlete of the 20th century (in a tie with Jim Thorpe, of course). Thank you for mentioning When We Were Kings so that I understand that Facing Ali might be, hopefully, an equally awesome film. SpikeTV is doing something worthwhile that’s not UFC or Star Wars marathons; that’s interesting.

  2. Thanks for reviewing this one, I really enjoyed it. Chuvalo is a fascinating guy, that story about his sons got me a bit choked up.

  3. Hey vern do you think you could get The Seagology logo on the shirts and mugs in your store?? I want to buy something but I’m not sure if I want that creepy face on me all day(apologies if that is an accurate likeness of yourself).

  4. Re: Vern’s likeness

    This is a bit of a digression. But I always imagine Vern as being big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders. And hands that look like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.

    In other news, it’s fun to read Parker books and imagine that Parker is Vern.

  5. I’m afraid that I will now forever picture Vern as Bearded Harold. Perhaps with a snazzy hat or an eyepatch tho.

  6. Vern said , I don’t remember exactly where , that the 2 actors he thinks are perfect for playing him in a movie are Kris Kristofferson and Sam Elliott . I think that’s because they’re kickass actors , but from that point on I always imagined Vern as an old man , with long hair and white beard . Yeah , like Santa Fucking Claus ! Only more badass and dressed in black . When I first started reading the site , I imagined him as an African American , a Watts Prophet kind of guy , but then on Wikipedia there was an article saying that “he is not really a person ” , and Vern replied “what am I , a puppet ? ” . So , for a while , I imagined him as Animal from the Muppets .

  7. Oh , by the way , great piece Vern , I didn’t know of Facing Ali . WHEN WE WERE KINGS is a documentary I always watch with my father , a big boxing fan , and I don’t want to watch ALI with him , so if I will find this , we will watch it together .

  8. i can easily imagine bearded harold growing up into sam elliot from ROADHOUSE one day.

  9. Holy shit , I just described Vern as Santa Claus ( dressed in black ) , and Santa Claus is famous for using chimneys to enter houses during the night. This , my friends , is another proof that he’s a chimney sweep . I will get you , Vern , I’m using Google Earth over Seattle , and one day I will have photographic evidence that my theory is correct !

  10. Oh Kermit. Didn’t you learn anything from Jack Black in King Kong? Why must you always try to kill the thing you love?

  11. I’m not trying to kill anyone ! I’m talking about photographic evidence here , it’s not like King Kong ! It’s more like Bigfoot , really….

  12. But don’t you see? You’re trying to kill the mysteriousness. You do that, you might as well just chain Vern up at Carnegie Hall and show him off to a bunch of rich white people.

  13. All I want is a blurry , barely understandable image of Vern moving on the rooftops ( or the woods , if he’s really Bigfoot ) . I don’t even have the budget to actually capture him , I’m using Google Earth , man , not some kind of mercenary/hunter unit . After all , Bigfoot is still free , and mysterious !

  14. That’s how it starts, Kermit. Sure, you just want to study him a little, but then the Company gets involved and starts talking about weapons applications. Do you have any idea the damage Vern could do if he were used for evil?

  15. “All I want is a blurry , barely understandable image of Vern moving on the rooftops ( or the woods , if he’s really Bigfoot ) .”

    Blobern? Vernsquatch? Vernsquash? (Trying to come up with a catchy way of describing a blurry ill-defined photo of Vern…)

  16. But think about this…..the potential for this species goes way beyond…..new alloys , new vaccines , you should be very proud . And the animal itself , wondrous , the potential , unbelievable …once we’ve thamed him.

  17. ….once we’ve tamed him.

  18. Sabreman : You captured the true essence of my studies : The Vernsquatch.

  19. This sounds like a great doco, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
    Hey, CallMeKermit, no love for “Ali”? I thought it was a really good Michael Mann film, so am surprised that someone is avoiding it. You don’t like Michael Mann or is there some other reason?

  20. Now I feel bad for leading us off the path. Vern wrote a movie review and instead of discussing it, we’re just talking about the Vernsquatch. I have failed to Strive for Excellence. Vern, I’m sorry bud, I will rent this movie as penance.

  21. SDAL : No , it’s nothing like that . I will watch ALI when I will get the chance . But before that I will try to find the documentaries we’re talking about now , because I like to know more about that timeframe from real footage , and I will watch them with my father because he lived that period .

  22. Weird how Ali went from one of the more “controversial” (i.e. hated by White America) celebrities of the late 1960s, to a beloved sports icon at home and abroad.

    I wonder how those crackers from back in the day would feel about this.

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