Saturday, July 10, 2010

Review: Facing Ali

There was a lot to like about this recent documentary I came across. "Facing Ali" weaves the reflections of several boxers who got into the ring against Muhammad Ali, and their stories are accompanied by archived footage of their fights.

I liked how the majority of their stories are introduced by one of Ali's colorful remarks as the fight was promoted. Like this one setting up Ron Lyle's story, and one of my personal favorites: "If you even dream of beating me, you'd better wake up and apologize."

Lyle, spent 7 1/2 years in prison -- solitary confinement, learning how to do 1,000 pushups in an hour and being fed only a so-called daily bowl of spinach w/ meals every other day. He was also critically stabbed. He had a vivid dream of fighting Ali for the heavyweight championship during these days. When he got out,  he sparred with Ali and got that title shot, and as he's fighting, he realizes he's doing things in this fight that he did during his dream back in prison.

He lost on a thrilling TKO, but wasn't bitter. Instead, he was grateful because it gave him a second chance at life, and led him to his work with young boxers today, keeping them -- and him -- on the straight and narrow as a corner man.

Or take Ken Norton's fight. Norton was dirt poor and asked his dad if he could come home. Dad says, "If I help you now, I'll be helping you the rest of your life ... be a man." So Norton didn't go home, he kept at it ... and four fights later, got a bout with Ali. Even before Norton staged a dramatic upset, he said facing Ali gave him a new chance at life, period. He was grateful, honored and called it a life-saver. After he retired, he was in a terrible car crash that left him paralyzed for three years, and Ali came to visit him. Norton hadn't remembered much of anything before the crash at this point, but he remembered Ali.

And there is Earnie Shavers, whose life before boxing admittedly would've led him to a life as a contract killer. He earned a date with Ali and prompted the champ to admit that this was the hardest he'd ever been hit. "Just his name is magic if you do well with him," Shavers said.

Virtually every boxer here has similar tales of gratitude to tell simply by being associated with the man.

Joe Frazier (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)
The documentary is filled with intriguing behind the scenes information, historical context and rich backgrounds of all the boxers, providing excellent insight on the people that they were, and are now. Joe Frazier, whom Ali always jokingly chided for being less sophisticated, had a few memorable gems: like thinking Ali meant "Peeping Tom" when he called him an "Uncle Tom." He also had a telling line about his past on the streets ... not saying he stole cars, per se, but that, "I used to borrow cars that weren't mine, and not bring them back."

George Foreman also makes a poignant observation during his loss in the Rumble in the Jungle, where he says that the greatest punch of the fight was never thrown, because Ali held back on a thunderous right that would have easily finished Foreman off completely as he was on his way down. There is video here that clearly shows this, and it's an extremely compelling moment. "That's what made him the greatest fighter I ever fought," Foreman says.

As in his career, the film ends on a bit of a down note, with his fight with Larry Holmes. Holmes used to be Ali's sparring partner, then went off on his own and became champ. He was busting up Ali pretty good, and remembered feeling that he didn't want to hit him in the body anymore because he remembered during his sparring days that Ali urinated blood from some of the kidney shots he took. A broken-down Ali loses the fight, ending his career for good.

But the fight also provides the feeling of passing the torch to the younger boxers, who, now in the later stages of their own lives, close the film with their reflections on Ali's battle with Parkinson's. They are sympathetic and broken up about it -- even Frazier tears up -- having gone toe to toe with a legend, and seeing him in the humbling condition he's in today. But as they were in their prime, every one of them remains in awe of the man and his legacy with gratitude, respect and a deep sense of honor. As do we.

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