Showtime establishes itself yet again as prizefighting central with “Bud Greenspan’s Kings of the Ring: Four Legends of Heavyweight Boxing.” Having already scored with high-profile title bouts and last year’s solid “Rocky Marciano,” the cable web dives into intellectual waters here, uniting the parallel evolution of sport and society. With some immaculately preserved footage and its ponderous tone, this well-crafted project is a historian’s dream and a technical knockout.
And it couldn’t have emerged from a more informed source. Greenspan is a prolific and acclaimed biographer, perfecting a blend of human drama with the athletic arena. Known industrywide as the Olympics’ consummate archivist, his work, from “Ageless Heroes” to docus on the Los Angeles, Berlin and Munich games, have saved the memories and moments of participants, viewers and anyone else linked with international competition’s biggest stage.
“Kings” brings Greenspan onto the canvas, where Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali donned their gloves while doing double duty as political symbols. And though many men could have joined the quartet in terms of fame and fortune (George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson), Greenspan appropriately tapped a foursome that mirrored specific civic shifts.
After Johnson was crowned the first black champion, a racist press — Jack London included — searched hard for a “Great White Hope,” horrified at the prospect of idolizing a successful member of minority group who dated (and married) white women. Having no luck finding a competitor, the media turned to the law; Johnson was arrested for violating a prostitution statute and, after fleeing to Europe in 1915, returned in 1920 to face an eight-month prison sentence.
If Johnson’s plight represented America at its worst, then Dempsey embodied its prosperity. The Manassa Mauler became a box office phenomenon during the Roaring ’20s and the original member of what was eventually termed the ring’s Golden Age, even if he could never beat Gene Tunney.
Then there’s Louis, after losing to Max Schmeling in 1940, finally defeating Adolph Hitler’s propaganda puppet in a ’42 rematch. Despite his heroic victory, the Brown Bomber’s existence wasn’t charmed; the IRS hounded him until his death, but, like Jesse Owens, he had epitomized the common contempt for Nazi Germany.
The weakest brushstroke in Greenspan’s portraiture is his look at Ali. All of the controversy is there (his draft dodging, the Rumble in the Jungle) — but the man who is arguably one of the century’s most celebrated individuals gets shortchanged when it comes to his influence in broadcasting and mass marketing.
The millennium’s end has brought to TV a wave of light programming too concerned with lists; every network and newsmag had some sort of recap that usually served only as a mental souvenir. “Kings” gets it right, focusing on thrilling rivalries and also giving auds something to think about.
It’s obvious from the narrative that this isn’t about praise and adulation; unlike other specials that spotlight achievement, the different guests, from the New Yorker’s David Remnick to artist LeRoy Neiman, don’t sit and gush over strength and ability. Instead, the collection of authorities, which also includes Bert Sugar and columnist Bill Gallo, examines the subjects’ behavioral patterns as the world that coddled or detested them rapidly changed.
Tech credits are good all around, with some sharp sound editing bringing classic battles to life.