NEW ALI DOCUMENTARY ISN'T PERFECT, BUT HE STILL FASCINATES...
By Don Stradley
I used to have a recurring dream about Muhammad Ali. In the dream, he'd come out of retirement to box again at age 50 or 60. Apparently, some scientist had invented a drug that would cure his Parkinson's Syndrome for an hour or so, just enough time for him to get in the ring and win a close decision over some non-descript fighter. He'd win, but as he was being lead out of the ring, the miracle drug would begin to wear off, and he'd return to his sickly self. It was a strange dream, eerie but uplifting. I must have had it five or six times. Maybe more. Such was my fascination with Ali.
I was lucky enough to write for The Ring magazine during the 2000s, when it was still under the leadership of Nigel Collins. During those years I learned to stop thinking of fighters as iconic figures and to see them in more realistic terms. As one famous trainer once told me on the sly, "Fighters aren't heroic. They just do what they're trained to do, like race horses." I knew what he meant. I once saw a fighter spit out a mouthful of blood the size of a ping pong ball in the middle of the ring. He didn't seem too concerned, any more than an animal would be concerned. Boxing, it turned out, was not just a show to watch on television. It was brutal. I met some nice people in the sport, but in equal numbers there were people you wouldn't want to sit next to on the subway.
When I heard about I Am Ali, a new documentary by Clare Lewins, I was skeptical. Though my eyes were opened to the vulgarity of the business, I retained a bit of my interest in Ali, and a good doc on "The Greatest" might be entertaining. One could probably take a random collection of Ali clips, throw them in a hat, pluck them out and link them together in absolutely no order, and it would still be an amusing 90 minutes. Still, there'd been so many documentaries and movies about this man, including the excellent When We Were Kings, and the not so excellent Michael Mann biopic starring Will Smith, that I wondered what more could be said. I felt that so many cameras had been trained on Ali since the 1960s that the life had been drained from his story, and that the farther removed we are by time, the less weight his story carries.
Lewins' unhurried, almost sleepy movie is a mixed bag. She's a BBC filmmaker, and has previously directed films about Audrey Hepburn, Mick Jagger, and Steve McQueen. She approaches Ali as another larger than life icon. She's not particularly interested in boxing, and I Am Ali features only a smattering of boxing clips. The legendary moments - fighting while half blind in the fifth round against Sonny Liston, the torn glove against Henry Cooper, the broken jaw battle with Ken Norton - are not mentioned. Maybe that's just as well, because we've heard those tales. She has other things in mind, namely, a look into Ali's family life.
Ali's ex-wife Veronica, his brother Rachman, and some of Ali's nine children, all appear in the movie. They offer some mildly amusing anecdotes, and we get the message: Ali was a nice guy, a big-hearted teddy bear, a practical joker, with lots of love to give. The best part of the movie is a series of tape recorded conversations between Ali and his children when they were very young. There's a sweetness in these conversations, and you get the impression that Ali loved his children and was vastly entertained by their comments. But there's also an uncomfortable aspect to them - Ali claimed to record everything for historical purposes, but I also wonder if it because he was a largely absentee father. These recordings may have been a kind of stand-in for him.
His children grew up to be very nice, charming people. There's a suggestion in the movie that the spotlight was so harsh on their dad that they all went out of their way to stay out of it, pursuing lives far under the radar. One taped conversation involves one of his daughters saying that kids pick on her at school because of her famous father. Ali sounds genuinely sad when he hears of this. Ali's son, Muhammad Jr, is in the movie, and he can barely contain his disgust at remembering how other boys wanted to fight him. It wasn't easy to have a father as famous as Ali, and while the children tell stories of visiting him at his training camp and having fun, there's a sense that Ali was never entirely there for them, and that this created a small psychic wound that has never completely healed. Ali belonged not his family, but to the world. Even his brother, Rachman, refers to Ali as "Ali," as if talking about a distant celebrity.
The irony is that once Ali's boxing career ended, he was taken from his family again, this time by his illness. I've always found it sad that Ali didn't get to experience middle age. He went from being a relatively young man of 40 to being an old, unhealthy man, and has remained in that sickly limbo for 30 years. I Am Ali doesn't get too maudlin about Ali's health. Instead, the movie seems to wind down in a series of clichés, with Ali's family and friends saying that he was one of a kind, that he loved everybody, and there'd never be another like him. The movie's end borders on being sickly-sweet, which is a shame.
I almost met Ali a few years back. I was in Madison Square Garden, sitting in the press row. Ali's daughter Laila, whose own boxing career was akin to Lisa Marie Presley's singing career, was fighting on the undercard against some opponent I couldn't recall if you put a gun to my head. Ali was ushered into the arena almost secretly, and plopped down into a third row seat. A slight round of respectful applause filled the Garden, sounding like gentle rain. I was close enough to go over and say something, but he looked tired. He actually fell asleep during Laila's fight. When it ended, he was ushered out again, like tired old royalty.
I guess that's why documentaries about Ali, even a leisurely one like I Am Ali, are still useful. They remind us that there was once a man capable of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, and was so famous that he even appeared in our dreams.