- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

The gladiatorial nature of boxing has always served as potent fodder for the screen. “Raging Bull” was labeled by critics the best movie of the 1980s; this year’s “Tyson” is a shoo-in for an Oscar nod; and Rocky Balboa remains a fixture on cable television.

Of all the boxers, real and imagined, however, one stands above the rest in the public’s mind: Muhammad Ali.

As time passes and media coverage grows ever more fawning in his waning years, it’s hard to remember that Mr. Ali was one of the most polarizing figures — reviled by some, beloved by many — of the 1960s and ‘70s, no small feat considering the tumult of those decades.

Perhaps it’s because of that dichotomy that Mr. Ali is so studied on film. From “When We Were Kings,” the documentary about his classic fight with George Foreman in Zaire, the Rumble in the Jungle, to last year’s “Thrilla in Manila,” a look at the fraught rivalry between Joe Frazier and Mr. Ali, to “Facing Ali,” the new documentary screening at Silverdocs on Tuesday, the champ known as “the Greatest” has long been a subject of fascination.

However, all of this coverage has led to a distortion of the man and his time — to the point that it’s almost impossible to know who the real Muhammad Ali was. Was he the beloved, fast-talking showman of “When We Were Kings” or the race-baiting verbal hit man who drove Mr. Frazier to distraction in “Thrilla in Manila”? Is he the draft dodger or the international legend who lit Atlanta’s Olympic Torch?

Is he all of these? Is he none?

What Mr. Ali was was the prototype of the modern-day athlete, the trash-talking self-promoter who saw himself as larger than the game. He waged mental warfare against less verbally nimble foes, going below the belt when it suited his needs. The things he said about Mr. Frazier — that he was a “gorilla” and an Uncle Tom — can only be classified as despicable, the sort of thing that would get most people banned from polite society.

Yet his dexterity with the language was the key to the adoration he commanded and the main reason he is such a compelling figure on the big screen. The world had never seen this mix of fast fists and quick-witted verbosity, as punishing a one-two combination as any fighter has ever possessed. Mr. Ali was entertaining inside and outside of the ring, and his extracurricular activities, arguably, have been far more important to his legacy.

In 1964, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam, and in 1967, he was stripped of his title for refusing induction into the Army. A conscientious objector, Mr. Ali captured the zeitgeist just as the antiwar movement was hitting the mainstream, endearing himself for all time to the baby boomers. For a generation fighting “the system,” his rejection of authority made him a symbol of resistance.

His resistance, and the return to boxing glory that followed, made him a legend in his own time and a source of continuing fascination in the years that followed. Countless documentaries have been made about Mr. Ali, and a big-budget biopic directed by Michael Mann met critical success in 2001; Will Smith picked up an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the boxer.

It’s interesting to contrast Mr. Ali with another titan of the sports world: Michael Jordan. These two men have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated more than anyone else, and both were larger-than-life figures. Despite their peerless excellence in their respective sports, Mr. Ali has become a transcendent figure in the popular culture, a persona much larger than his accomplishments within the ring. Mr. Jordan, on the other hand, is just a great basketball player.

One wonders if that has to do with Mr. Jordan’s refusal to stand for anything other than sneaker sales and championship trophies. When asked why he didn’t get more active in politics, Mr. Jordan famously replied, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” It’s impossible to imagine Mr. Jordan going on William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line,” as Mr. Ali did in December 1968.

Mr. Ali shied from no controversies on Mr. Buckley’s program, talking about everything from the Black Panthers to his draft status to the state of boxing. He went toe-to-toe with conservatism’s foremost public speaker, and though one may disagree with his ideas, it’s hard not to respect him for accepting the challenge.

“Facing Ali” features interviews with some of Mr. Ali’s most memorable opponents, including Mr. Foreman and Mr. Frazier, and promises to change the way you look at the champ. The most interesting question it will answer is this: Is there really anything left of Mr. Ali that we haven’t seen before?

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