The premiere of HBO’s upcoming documentary about the life of Muhammad Ali more closely resembled a boxing hall of fame induction than your typical Hollywood event, with some of the best fighters of all time coming together to pay tribute to their idol.
Boxing legends Oscar De La Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard, “Sugar” Shane Mosley, fight announcers Michael and Bruce Buffer and the legend’s own daughter Laila Ali were just some who celebrated Ali’s legacy at the premiere for the 2-part HBO documentary “What’s My Name?” in Downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday night. Ali hadn’t seen the finished film, but was looking forward to hearing her father tell his own story.
“I think it’s amazing that people continue to do movies about him,” Ali told Variety. “There’s still more story to be told. He’s such an impactful individual. They’ll never be another, you know? And he was so beautiful in so many ways. So just to see it unfold on the screen, it’s going to be amazing.”
Ali’s widow Lonnie Ali also supported the film at the premiere and credits director Antoine Fuqua and producers Maverick Carter and LeBron James for focusing on getting the story right, saying that they understood the gravity of telling Ali’s story.
“I think that [this movie is] important because it’s not somebody’s interpretation of Muhammad, his actions or his words or his thoughts,” she said, justifying the need to tell her late husband’s story again, adding that the documentary is “another jewel in the tapestry of the Ali legacy.”
To set this documentary apart, Fuqua used voice recordings and archival footage to tell Ali’s story versus a series of interviews with talking heads, allowing the boxer to tell his own story.
“There’s only one person could tell you anything about him that we don’t know. And it’s only Ali. He was the best talker in the world — about himself,” Fuqua said with a laugh.
Fuqua first fell in love with The People’s Champion when he was about 10 years old, watching Ali fight Joe Frazier: “All the women in my house if aren’t crazy. And all the men were talking about ‘Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee,’ including me. I remember seeing a beautiful, handsome, educated, sharp, funny, charming black man, who was beating everybody’s butt. But he was still looking pretty. And I was like, ‘I want to be like him.’”
De La Hoya remembered meeting the champ at a boxing gym in East LA when he was six years old. He says that the advice Ali gave him then was key to his success both as a boxer and as a businessman.
“He calls all little kids over. He’s giving us pointers on how to hit the bag. But the one thing I remember is he telling us, ‘Whenever you make money and turn professional, make sure you keep it.’ And it’s stuck with me forever,” De La Hoya said, praising Ali’s impact inside and outside the ring. “He was the greatest of all time. But yet, till this day, he continues to impact lives.”
“Words cannot define what this man meant to so many people, especially to me,” Leonard echoed, recalling the first time he met his idol when he presented an award to Ali in 1975. “Sometimes when people say, I’m great, I’m great, I’m the greatest. They get turned around sometimes because there was only one guy who was great and that was Muhammad Ali.
“I hope [audiences] walk away realizing what it means when you say greatness and the greatest of all time. He’s not just talking about boxing. He may have been in the moment, but he actually walked the walk,” the director shared. “He sacrificed his career, his life almost. He was one bullet away from being shot like Malcolm [X] and Martin [Luther King, Jr.] who he was close to. He gave back to kids. He took fights and gave the money back. He went around the world. That helped politically stop a war.” he explained. “That’s greatness. That’s somebody. Greatness is giving yourself in service of others.”
With all of these boxing legends in one room, it begged the question of whose story could be told next. Laila Ali says she’s not thinking about her own movie yet.
“We’ll see. I have so much more to do. This just doesn’t feel like it would be the right time,” she explained. “We all have our own story. I wrote a book about my life ‘Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit, and Power,’ but there’s just so much more to come.”
But it seems Sugar Ray Leonard is ready, telling Variety that he wants Fuqua to direct his life story. “Like Muhammad Ali, I grew up watching [Leonard]. I have to do his story,” Fuqua said, accepting the boxer’s challenge and explaining how he’d approach a Leonard movie differently since he’s still here to contribute. “Who else is going to tell you the details?”
“What’s My Name? | Muhammad Ali” Part 1 debuts on May 14.