Judge Daryl Loomis buys his herbs from The Greatest of All Thyme.
The opposition weighs in.
You won't have a ton of opposition if you call Muhammad Ali the greatest boxer of all time. Even with those who would argue for Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, or even Harry Greb, if that's your bent; there is no doubt that Ali was the most important athlete of the last century, not to mention the most divisive. Gallons of ink have been spilled about the man, but seldom do we hear from his opponents about what it was like to battle him in the ring. Facing Ali, based on the book by Stephen Brunt and directed by Pete McCormack, gives us these stories in the fighters' own words. Cut together to form a cohesive retrospective of his career, this film is a somewhat unique perspective about the legendary fighter.
Ten of Ali's toughest opponents show up to give their thoughts:
George Chuvalo (73-18-2, 64 KO): Canadian Heavyweight Champion "Boom Boom" Chuvalo fought Ali twice: first on March 29, 1966 and next on May 1, 1972, losing both but gaining the champ's respect. Chuvalo was never knocked down in any of his 93 fights.
Ron Lyle (43-7-1, 31 KO): Lyle didn't turn professional until his thirties, yet quickly rose through the ranks. He fought Ali on May 16, 1975 and took the champ into the eleventh round, where it was stopped in controversy.
Earnie Shavers (74-14-1, 68 KO): Earnie "Black Destroyer" Shavers was one of the hardest punchers in boxing history and gave Ali one of the big tests of his career. On September 29, 1977, in Madison Square Garden, Ali took a serious beating, and it was after this fight that people would begin pleading with Ali to retire.
Henry Cooper (40-15-1, 27 KO): "Our 'Enry," Sir Henry Cooper was an extremely popular British champion, who fought Ali twice while he was still Cassius Clay, first on June 18, 1963 and next on May 21, 1966.
Ernie Terrell (45-9-0, 21 KO): At 6'5, Terrell was a giant of a man, who won the WBA Heavyweight crown in 1965, and held it until he lost to Ali on February 6, 1967. Terrell caused controversy when he refused to call Ali anything but "Clay," which did not make Ali too happy.
Ken Norton (42-7-1, 1 NC 33 KO): Ken "Jaw Breaker" Norton was an amazing athlete who handed Ali only the second loss of his career, literally breaking the champ's jaw and taking his title in a split-decision victory on March 31, 1973. Ali would take his title back later that year, on September 18, but Norton would always be remembered as the one Ali overlooked.
Larry Holmes (69-6-0, 44 KO): The Easton Assassin was a legendary fighter in his own right, but began as a humble sparring partner of Ali's. They didn't fight until October 2, 1980, when Holmes, already a dominant champion, had the ignominious task of putting the champ away for good. Ali fought only once more, a sad affair against Trevor Berbick.
Leon Spinks (26-17-3, 14 KO): His record may not reflect it, but "Neon" Leon Spinks was a great champion himself. He and his brother Michael were the first pair of brothers to hold the heavyweight championship. Spinks also holds the distinction as the only fighter to actually take the belt from Ali, February 15, 1978.
George Foreman (76-5-0, 68 KO): As a hall-of-fame fighter and the promoter of one of history's great small appliances, George Foreman needs no introduction. In his prime, the world feared Foreman. Everybody except one man, that is. On October 30, 1974, at the famed Rumble in the Jungle, Ali unveiled his insane Rope-a-dope style of "defense" that helped tire the champion and finally beat him.
Joe Frazier (32-4-1, 27 KO): "Smokin' Joe" Frazier brought out the absolute best in Ali, taking him to three of the most brutal contests of his career. These men despised each other; their hatred became 41 rounds of pure violence inside the ring.
Each of these ten fighters, from the famous to the obscure, have valuable anecdotes about Muhammad Ali and, for the most part, Facing Ali gives each plenty of time to tell their stories. The film follows the basic timeline of Ali's career, as does the order of the interviews. Though each fighter offers his input at important points of Ali's life, the boxer who fought Ali closest to the time in question gets the main stage. They can all tell a pretty good story, though some are more memorable than others. Chuvalo has a great memory for not just his fight with Ali, but of Ali's whole career (especially for how many punches the man took). Larry Holmes is always an entertaining interview. Earnie Shavers is plain scary. Others, like the interminably bitter Joe Frazier and the nutty George Foreman, tell the same old stories over again.
While the film follows this path, Facing Ali is not as cohesive as it could be. The first problem is that the film isn't about Muhammad Ali, the interview subjects, or even what it's like to face Ali, as the title might suggest. It's simply a series of opinions about the fighter and the decisions he made. How does each one feel about his name change? His stance on Vietnam? His Parkinson's Disease? They give their opinions, but we never learn much about the one giving the opinion. This leads into the second problem: a lack of context. Even the most basic information is absent. We don't even get the date of the particular fights. When somebody relays an anecdote about something Ali said, we never learn who he said it to, or why.
Because only two or three of the fighters are immediately familiar to most people, and there's nothing to tell us the importance of these fighters to Ali's career; there is limited appeal outside of hardcore boxing fans, and even then there's little new information here. George Chuvalo might have great stories to tell, but why should anybody listen? It's the director's job to make us care, but we don't. Aside from Frazier, all the fighters are grateful to Ali. As Ron Lyle puts it, "If I didn't fight Ali, would you be talking to Ron Lyle? About what?" I'm sure they're appreciative to have some time to talk about their careers in front of a camera, but Pete McCormack doesn't do enough to make them or the story that compelling. There are much better Ali documentaries out there, but the exposure for the fighters is certainly a positive.
The documentary may be mixed, but the DVD from Lionsgate is very good in every aspect, starting with the superb image. Shot with Red cameras, the picture has a beautiful level of detail. These are static shots in gyms and other sparse sets, yet it's still colorful and full of deep shadows. The transfer is perfect, and the restoration of the archival footage is nothing short of amazing. The sound doesn't fare as well, if only for a lack of activity. Heavy on the monologs with very little music or effects, the speakers can only do so much, which is very little. The stereo and surround tracks are near identical; both have clear and noise-free dialog. Some people may balk at the inclusion of mandatory subtitles for a few of the fighters, namely Frazier and Spinks, whose speech patterns have become blurred by age and abuse. They are difficult, but not impossible to understand at times, however the subtitles makes perfectly clear what the men are saying, and this is most important thing.
For extras, we have a "set" of virtual trivia cards of the boxers interviewed in the film. In the age of the internet, these are totally pointless. Otherwise, we have three strong featurettes. The first, called "Bringing the Fights to Life," focuses on the usage of the Red cameras and is technical, but interesting. These cameras seem to be the future of video filmmaking. Next, we have "Facing Ali: from Book to Screen" which is more about the idea behind the film than Blunt's book. "After the Bell," about the interaction between the boxers and the crew, finishes us off. It's about thirty minutes of good supplementary information.
Far from the G.O.A.T. in terms of Ali documentaries, Facing Ali still has plenty to offer boxing fans.
By split decision, not guilty.
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