Ten of the most formidable fighters who squared off against Muhammad Ali emerge with their stature seriously enhanced from the first-rate boxing docu “Facing Ali.” No doubt only Ali among heavyweight champs could inspire this sort of extended study of his opponents, and the result stimulates interest that extends well beyond the ring, so compelling are several of these men in their own right. Following limited fest exposure, the impeccably researched and produced film is currently playing low-key awards-qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York prior to tube play next spring on Spike TV.
Such earlier champs as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano may have fought a succession of mostly journeymen, but the same cannot be said of Ali, who, in the course of his unfortunately interrupted career, took on all comers and had particularly intense rivalries with Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. For the benefit of the uninitiated, director Pete McCormack briskly traces Ali’s extraordinary trajectory — the defeats of Sonny Liston, embrace of Islam, loss of the title for refusing to appear for Army induction during the Vietnam War and comeback as the first man to win the heavyweight crown three times — but gives only enough info to establish where each of his present cast members entered the scene.
Although, sadly, four of the men need an assist from subtitles to be fully understood, due to injury-induced verbal impairments, they are all fascinating talkers in their own ways. British boxer Henry Cooper and George Foreman are just naturally voluble and entertaining, while Frazier, whose raspy slur will be familiar to those who saw the recent HBO docu “Thriller in Manila,” brandishes a complicated mixture of wounded pride, undiminished resentment, justifiable ego and common-man durability.
Others simply have extraordinary tales to tell and tell them well, a credit to McCormack’s preparation and ability to put them at ease. George Chuvalo, who was Canadian champ when he took Ali 15 tough rounds in 1966, is exceptionally articulate, insightful and, when he speaks about having lost three sons to drugs and his wife from suicide, excruciatingly moving. Ernie Terrell — who deliberately taunted Ali by calling him by his original family name, Clay — also went the distance and is very good at discussing tactics, while both Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers bust out of their one-dimensional, criminally tinged reputations as complex men with nuanced insights to offer about Ali, themselves and life.
Leon Spinks, on the other hand, confirms his how unprepared he was for the limelight that was briefly his after the 8-to-1 underdog’s startling defeat of an out-of-shape Ali in 1978; his is a familiar tale of booze, drugs, excess and financial ruin.
But perhaps the saddest sight of all is of Norton. Once the possessor of one of sports’ most imposing physiques, a film and TV actor in the ’70s and ’80s and the man who broke Ali’s jaw in the first of their three close fights, Norton has lately been missing in action, and now it’s clear why: An awful 1986 auto accident paralyzed him for three years and has left him a tragically diminished man. All the same, he has plenty of smart things to say about Ali and boxing, as does Larry Holmes, whose jovial demeanor marks him as one of the lucky ones who got out of the game with his health and money intact.
Except for Frazier, whatever acrimony and tension that might have naturally existed between combatants is just so much water under the bridge at this point. What remains is the tremendous respect these men feel for Ali. No doubt for each of them, fighting Ali represented a career high point; he made them part of history and they fully appreciate what it all meant. Although some express misgivings about the manipulations of the Nation of Islam in Ali’s career, their regard for him as a fighter only magnifies his stature.
Fight fans might wish for more strategic information; aware of Ali’s extraordinary speed and skills, how did these men plan to beat him, and how did the champ (mostly) foil their attempts? More than one participant regrets that Ali didn’t retire after the third Frazier fight, and one shares Holmes’ qualms about their ill-advised match when Ali was far too old to compete.
Shot on the Red camera, the interviews are superbly set up and photographed, in line with top-notch production values overall. The pic was made in association with Muhammad Ali Enterprises, although Ali himself appears only in fight and archival footage.