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The West Wing
FACING ALI, 2009
Cast: George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton
A documentary: covering the career of boxing, great Muhammad Ali -- as told by 10 of his fiercest opponents.
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The title does not do it justice: there is a pat, generic ring to it that does not hint at the depth of experience found here. One expects a typical sports film and it is not that. That said it won’t initially interest those who are not boxing fans. For this is about boxing, great Muhammad Ali – for many, ‘the greatest’ heavyweight who ever put gloves on: his life is the stuff of legend. It’s odd then that the real pay off is the 10 men who narrate the film. The filmmakers allow us a generous glimpse into the poverty and hard times that drove these men to risk everything. Today they are craggy shadows of their former selves: brought into sharp contrast with archival footage of battles of the past.
The film follows Ali from the beginning of his career as Cassius Clay; the light-heavyweight, Olympic, gold medal winner. He puts on a few pounds and moves into the heavyweight division where he meets Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown. Liston seems unbeatable – a seven to one favourite – a huge puncher who dispatched most rivals in a round or two. But Ali had speed, the fastest foot and hand speed of any heavyweight. He dodged Liston’s bombs and countered with a lightning offence to become, in 1964, the youngest champ ever.
The ‘lip from Louisville’ (Kentucky) was never far from controversy. He became a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X was a friend and mentor. The civil rights movement was simmering and the Viet Nam war was blazing. When inducted for the draft Ali refused to go: he had ‘no quarrel with them Viet Cong’ --other poor brown people that lived ten thousand miles away. His fight was for equality in America.
He was stripped of his title and banned from boxing – benched for three and half years. When he stepped back into the ring Joe Frazier was the new champ. Two undefeated heavyweight champs squared off for the ‘fight of the century’. It was a magnificent fight that might have gone either way, until Frazier knocked Ali down in the 14th. One round later the decision went to Frazier.
Ali was in the desert again, professionally. Conversely: as the nation’s mood toward the war shifted to the negative Ali’s early stand against the conflict took on heroic rather than negative tones. He grew more popular than ever. But it looked like he had lost his chance to regain the crown. Enter George Foreman. Foreman was a young steamroller in the Liston mould – no one could stand up to him. He knocked out Frazier in a couple rounds and was crowned world champ.