Muhammad Ali’s bark was as formidable as his bite, and “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali” pays tribute to both, allowing the three-time heavyweight champ to narrate his own story via a combination of audio and video archival material. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”), this 165-minute documentary uses copious interview soundbites to highlight the pugilist’s unparalleled gift of gab — and, consequently, the way it served as his means of defiant self-definition. Debuting on HBO in two parts (after premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival), it’s a celebration that, if not quite definitive, proves a stirring work of nonfiction assembly.
Comprised of old photos and film, TV, and radio clips, Fuqua’s project (executive-produced by LeBron James) does its best to approximate an autobiographical authorship, allowing “the greatest” to be his own storyteller. That approach, along with a narrative focus that remains almost exclusively on his public career — don’t go looking for insights into his family life, for example — means that “What’s My Name” is relatively short on outsider perspectives and, thus, a larger analysis of Ali’s place in history. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to be gleaned from Fuqua’s study, which, in allowing Ali to speak for himself, pinpoints how his motormouth persona was a voluble act of rebelliousness against a world that sought to pigeonhole him as just another black fighter.
Claiming professional wrestler Gorgeous George as his initial inspiration — the heel turn, he understood, put people in seats — Ali talked up a storm. In doing so, he established himself as an individual whose incessant boastfulness and poeticisms were inextricably related to his in-ring talents. Whether throwing punches or speaking into a microphone (often held by Howard Cosell), he danced like a butterfly and stung like a bee. As “What’s My Name” illustrates, sometimes his arrogant blabbering went a bit too far. His post-decision berating of Ernie Terrell comes across as unduly nasty, including to Cosell. Yet even then, there was a purpose to his excessiveness: to make clear that he was his own man, in every way, and to challenge that was to reap the whirlwind.
Ali’s name change from Cassius Clay, and refusal to let his critics and opponents continue to call him that old moniker without suffering consequences, is one key example of a lifelong desire to use words as a vehicle for self-actualization. That’s again felt in passages detailing Ali’s conversion to Islam under Elijah Muhammad, his career-threatening refusal to go to Vietnam, and his constant commentary on racial inequalities, which was all the more cutting for being delivered with good humor. Whether reciting one of his many verses, discussing his piety, or indulging in his trademark braggadocio, Ali verbally seizes his own agency.
Then, of course, there is the extensive fight footage itself, presented here in all its majestic glory. From his legendary win against bruiser Sonny Liston, to his three battles against Joe Fraser and Ken Norton, to numerous lesser-known bouts, Fuqua provides a thrilling overview of Ali’s athletic feats. While he’s too close to his subject to match the grander portrait delivered by 1996’s “When We Were Kings” — the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Forman is handled with swift efficiency — he compensates for it with comprehensiveness, which extends to considerable sequences regarding Ali’s compound in Deer Lake, Penn., where he trained without electricity or running water for his later contests against, among others, former sparring partner Larry Holmes.
That match, like so many that marked Ali’s professional twilight, is drenched in sadness, as it’s clear to all that he’s courting the very “punch-drunk” brain damage that he downplays to talk show hosts, whose concern for his well-being he interprets as an attempt to strip him of his vocation (and power). To watch Ali speak before these fights, it’s evident that the Parkinson’s disease that would rob him of his physical gifts (if not his sharp mind) has already crept in. Shrewdly, “What’s My Name” doesn’t shy away from Ali’s folly, even as it attempts to understand his unwillingness to retire as a natural extension of the revolutionary spirit that made him so magnificent.
Fuqua and editor Jake Pushinsky expertly overlay sound and image to evoke these notions, and their efficient, light-on-its-feet formal structure (buoyed by Marcelo Zarvos’ score and funk tracks like James Brown’s “The Big Payback”) does justice to every key moment in Ali’s boxing run. At almost three hours, “What’s My Name” never bogs down in repetitiveness or pedantry, instead operating almost as swiftly and forcefully as the icon himself. Whether seen as a fresh-faced young kid with a smile and a voice tailor-made for the TV era, or as an older man struggling to express himself without his most potent weapon, Ali is ably lionized – including by himself – as the greatest.