It's often said that it is the villains who make the hero stand out and look good. In this case, Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali (after his conversion to Islam) was one of the greatest heavyweight boxers and a living legend of the sport, unparalleled in his prowess during his peak, having fought the likes of George Foreman and Joe Frazier amongst many others en route to his titles, and achieving an impressive professional record of 56 wins of which 37 are by total knock outs, no draws, and losing 5 times, 4 of which are through the decisions of judges, and 1 by retirement. No prizes for guessing that's the last one.
Facing Ali, the documentary by Pete McCormack, brings us through the entire professional career of the man who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, and he certainly does. Through stock footage of bouts in the ring across the globe, "thrash talking" prior to games which brings us plenty of quotable quotes, and television interviews, we get to witness, as will others generation after generation, of a man who's the epitome of a fighter, possessing incredible speed in his footwork and dexterity with his punches, a body built to withstand intense punishment as dished out by opponents, with endless stamina to survive 15 rounds and surprising rivals with a sustained spurt of energized barrage of blows toward the end.
If you're interested in his life story, then you probably will be better off with biopics like Michael Mann's Ali which starred a bulked up Will Smith in the titular role. Here, we get the profile of the fighter through no less than 10 of his renowned, luminous rivals with whom shared sometimes one, two or even three separate matches throughout his entire career spanning more than two decades. It's full on talking heads, and through the relentless focus on building their back stories and gathering their recollections, thoughts and experiences fighting with The Greatest, we learn more of the man who has earned the respect of his professional peers, and I dare say almost all of whom have some form of reverence in the way the fights of their lives have shaped their personal and professional lives for the better. In many ways, we learn of Ali's immense influence and it is exactly these testimonials that genuinely reinforced his legendary status as the best the sport had ever to offer.
But in order to make this a fuller documentary, we also touch on the inevitable milestones in Ali's life, such as the influences on him in terms of politics with Malcolm X and religion through Elijah Muhammad, and how his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War since he doesn't have a fight with the Viet Congs, meant being banned and stripped of his title for years. But with stuff of what legends are made of, Ali still showed that he has what he takes as he went on to wrestle the championship back after that long a lay off, not forgetting that age is an inevitable enemy in this brutal contact sport.
And with documentaries, you'd almost always learn something new. For me, I've always wondered why boxers or wrestlers tend to prefer hugging their opponents whenever possible. Then it was mentioned in passing that doing so wears out the opponent. And it makes some sense, since the sportsmen weigh quite a bit, and resting that weight on someone else who has to stay on his foot and not buckle under those kilos thrown at him, just tests endurance and muscle strength. Now I know, as do I bear witness through archival footage of Ali in action over the years in one sitting, the strategy Ali takes in beating his opponents, compensating the lack of speed later with sly experience in taking on younger challengers, and how sometimes this sport can be dirty through throwing of games or through managers throwing in the towel, sometimes with good intentions though to discontinue the punishment and damage any athlete can take.
Pete McCormack also made the recollections of fights here interesting not only through stock footage but by having more than one of the peers of the time, apart from the fighter involved in the specific fight, share their insights to the same bout under highlight. Under certain circumstances some won't admit to losing until now, especially those who lost to Ali through decisions of judges, so I guess some bruised ego is still in place. And ego is something Ali had in abundance as he adopts a rather arrogant attitude brought into each pre-fight, which you can either call showmanship, or the use of psychology to rile the opponent.
It's quite the downer as the film wore on toward the end and the inevitable, where the curtains finally came down on someone's illustrious career, and in some ways the lessons learnt in knowing when to call it quits, though 8 million dollars to make a come back isn't something that everyone can walk away from. Still, McCormack's documentary is paced evenly and builds up the legend in a somewhat different fashion, relying on peers and rivals to pay tribute to one of the greatest sportsman of all time in the boxing arena. Recommended for fans and definitely a great jumping point into knowing more about Muhammad Ali and the sport he excelled in.