Growing up in the 1970s, the specter of heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali – whom I could never stand – was everywhere. Contrary to opinions voiced about him post-Parkinson's Disease, Ali was the most despised athlete of that era. The most beloved was actually soccer superstar Pelé.
Nonetheless, from that time on a raft of mediocre documentaries-cum-hagiographies have been made of the man. Not surprisingly, none has gotten to that rotten core. Here are three that I've recently watched in consecutive order: Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, and Muhammad Ali a.k.a. Cassius Clay.
The first documentary I streamed was Carlos Larkin's Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (2001) – not to be confused with William Klein's 1969 Ali documentary of the same title. Of the aforementioned trio, The Greatest is undoubtedly the most hagiographical, as the Larkin's film does little but praise Ali.
Glossed over are Ali's tainted wins over Sonny Liston, his association with Don King, and Ali's rumored ties to the Mafia, which many claim fixed a number of his late 1970s fights that ended in “decisions” for him. Think of the second Joe Frazier bout, his two “wins” over Ken Norton after Norton broke his jaw in their first fight (one of the great and most just moments in boxing history), and the 1977 and 1978 fifteen-round decisions against Earnie Shavers and Leon Spinks.
Instead, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest offers the usual: a parade of archival stills, newsreels, and clipped interviews with Ali sycophants. Yes, Ali won the heavyweight title three times and, yes, he should not have had it stripped from him for his refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War. But little is mentioned about the infamous Phantom Punch less than two minutes into the Ali-Liston rematch, which goes down as the most blatant fix in boxing history. Hell, there are films showing that no punch ever landed when seen from the side; yet, The Greatest shows only the punch from Liston's back, so one cannot fairly judge.
Ali's early years in Louisville, Ky., and his family life – a drunken father, etc. – are barely given a mention, while an “incident” in Las Vegas, when Liston jokingly pulled a gun on Ali, is given precedence over the less savory aspects of Ali's own career. Sonny Liston, for one, was accused of having ties to the mob and for that he got undying reprobation. Ali's dubious associations, however, are neatly glossed over by the The Greatest filmmakers and by the makers of the other two aforementioned documentaries.
But perhaps The Greatest most blatantly shows off its unprofessionalism and bias by constantly addressing Ali as “Muhammad.” Not helping matters are clips from Tom Gries and Monte Hellman's Ali-sponsored narrative feature The Greatest (1976), in which Ali starred as himself – surely one of the worst boxing films in history.
And oddly missing from Muhammad Ali: The Greatest is Ali's association with sportscaster Howard Cosell, who is seen only a few times in the background. The film ends with a shot of Ali at the 1996 Olympics, where he received a replacement gold medal for his Olympic win as a heavyweight fighter – for the one he had tossed away in 1960.
MUHAMMAD ALI: THE GREATEST (2001). Direction and narration: Carlos Larkin
Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami. Photo: © Bob Gomel
Shot in 2008 and clocking in at 54 minutes, Gaspar González and Alan Tomlinson's PBS documentary Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami covers much of the same terrain as Carlos Larkin's Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, as both lean heavily on Ali's life in the 1960s. One difference is that Made in Miami focuses on his training in Miami in the years when he first turned professional.
The documentary also offers longer interviews with Ali's trainers (e.g., Angelo Dundee), doctors (e.g., Ferdie Pacheco), and sycophantic journalists who rave about how disciplined Ali was in regard to women and drink – so much so that some thought he was gay.
More blatantly than the first film, Made in Miami distorts history not just by glossing over reality, but also by adding in the narrative that Sonny Liston, far from taking a dive, was actively attempting to cheat by having lineament applied to his gloves. This assertion was supposed to explain Ali's dazed reaction to some heavy shots he took from Liston.
On the positive side, Made in Miami explores fairly well Ali's conversion to the Black Muslims, his betrayal of Malcolm X, and his purported sorrow over that fact. The film is at its best when discussing the larger social issues of the day, such as the fact that Miami was ahead of the curve in regard to the Civil Rights Movement, holding sit-ins and demonstrations long before the more famed ones led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
Made in Miami also focuses on little-known fights that took place during Ali's early career, such as his almost getting knocked out by English fighter Henry Cooper, the European Heavyweight Champion at the time. The documentary also makes good use of live footage from the Liston-Clay fights, though that is far too pro-Ali.
Perhaps the best revelation Made in Miami makes is how pro wrestler Gorgeous George instructed Ali on how to use the media by displaying an outrageous personality. Ali's millions exist because of that encounter. Other highlights are the presentation of the relationship between Ali and the Black Muslims – chiefly Elijah Muhammad (who gave Ali his new name) and Malcolm X – and especially how Ali snubbed X shortly before his murder. Yet, the hints about Ali's solipsistic nature are never expounded upon. The film ends as Ali is stripped of his title.
MUHAMMAD ALI: MADE IN MIAMI (2008). Produced by Gaspar González, Alan Tomlinson.
The best of the trio of documentaries mentioned in my Muhammad Ali: The Greatest post was Muhammad Ali a.k.a. Cassius Clay, made in 1970 by boxing promoter Jim Jacobs and narrated by Richard Kiley. Jacobs' film is the most stylistically daring of the three: in addition to breaking the fourth wall, it depicts Ali – with boxing trainer Cus D'Amato – examining film highlights of himself and other boxers. Unfortunately, after the 30-minute mark, a.k.a. Cassius Clay devolves into yet another hagiography.
The documentary needed more comparisons to Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and other fighters of the past to make it interesting. Like Muhammad Ali: The Greatest and Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, a.k.a. Cassius Clay focuses on the 1960s and Ali's being stripped of his title – but by necessity, for in 1970 the filmmaker could not have portrayed Ali's full career. Having said that, Jacobs also chooses to gloss over the shameful Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fights.
Granted, a.k.a. Cassius Clay does make some good points when it posits the question of what Ali is to do next, as the film was made when his boxing career seemed over and the former champ was reduced to scrounging together work on Broadway. (That's where some of the film was shot in theatrical Our Town style.) Kiley intones solemnly that Ali might become an even more effective spokesman for black America, now that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were dead because, unlike them, he could marshal together the disenchantment of college youth from white suburbia and the rage of black extremists.
To say that a.k.a. Cassius Clay overstates its case is obvious in retrospect, but when one goes back to the time frame in which the film was made, it does seem like a legitimate speculation. After all, until the election of Barack Obama, there was a 40-year gap of black leadership on civil and ethical issues that was barely filled in only by marginal and shady leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton – two media-hound preachers with fundamental problems and skeletons in their own personal closets.
Also worth noting about a.k.a. Cassius Clay: Much like Made in Miami, Jacobs' film broaches the idea that Sonny Liston's trainers tried to blind Ali in their first fight; but again, nothing is said of the Phantom Punch in the second fight. Still, a.k.a. Cassius Clay succeeds in recapitulating its subject matter's problems, which themselves were merely recapitulations of the ills that have plagued America at large for decades: that of being all style and no substance. And this is the basis of the Ali legend – though it is also something that will likely not be explored in full until Ali is dead.
In sum, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, and Muhammad Ali a.k.a. Cassius Clay fail to do what documentaries are supposed to do: uncovering the truth about the given subject matter. As a result of their failure, none can be recommended as either good cinema or good journalism.
What really needs to get made is an exposé of Ali's career and personal misconduct: those three films, for instance, mention Ali's four wives, but say precious little on the reasons for the breakups. Earlier, I brought up the 1973 fight in which Ken Norton broke Ali's jaw; I recall watching that fight on television and cheering. Rare is the occasion when the Black Hat gets his comeuppance – and Ali rarely did because he sold his soul to the devil.
True, the man's years with Parkinson's are sad to watch, but recalling what that same man was like before he got sick, one is almost thankful that the hatred and rot he spewed – think of the stuff he said about Joe Frazier – cannot be launched any longer. One day, a film will come along and clear out all the lies. Until then, fluff like Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, and Muhammad Ali: a.k.a. Cassius Clay are all we're left with.
MUHAMMAD ALI: A.K.A. CASSIUS CLAY (1970). Dir.: Jim Jacobs. Written by: Bernard Evslin. Narration: Richard Kiley.
© Dan Schneider