Though Muhammad Ali has had his life and career picked over more thoroughly than any athlete of the 20th century, his story—the man he was and is, the lives he touched, his poetry inside and outside the ring—continues to inspire endless fascination. The trick is finding a fresh angle: Earlier this year, ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary Muhammad And Larry, Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan’s recounting of Ali’s ill-fated 1980 comeback fight against Larry Holmes, revealed a past-his-prime champion at his most gentle, vulnerable, and tragically hubristic. By contrast, the fine new documentary Facing Ali, based on Stephen Brunt’s book, considers Ali’s legacy as reflected through the eyes of 10 of his opponents, who can now look back at those fights with a measure of wisdom and perspective. Though ultimately another in a long line of tributes to Ali—albeit an intensely moving one at times—the film also functions as a series of 10 mini-biographies with common threads, and a powerful collective commentary on what it means to be a fighter.
Entire books and movies could be made about any one of the film’s subjects; if Facing Ali has an inherent flaw, it’s that their individual stories have to be brief and folded into the whole. Take George Chuvalo, a Canadian heavyweight whom Ali once called “the toughest guy I ever fought”: Though Ali demolished him on points in both contests, Chuvalo never got knocked out, either by Ali or anyone else. (He boasts of hospitalizing Ali after their first bout, then going out dancing with his wife the same night.) Throughout the documentary, Chuvalo delivers bright, magnanimous insights into Ali’s career, which are especially poignant considering the tragedy that’s beset his own life, including two sons who died of drug overdoses, and a wife and another son who committed suicide. After absorbing that much abuse, it’s little wonder that he’s considered to have the hardest chin in boxing history.
And that’s just one story. Others are equally compelling, like that of Ron Lyle, who got his toughness from seven years of hard time, or Joe Frazier, whose legendary (and sometimes nastily contentious) rivalry with Ali softened over time. Bouts that were once charged by mud-slinging on both sides—Ali referred to more than one opponent as “Uncle Tom,” while some refused to acknowledge his Muslim name—are now talked about with the sort of context that wasn’t possible while they were happening. And while guys like Holmes, Frazier, and Leon Spinks know the feeling of defeating Ali in the ring, all 10, to a man, consider him with the reverence and awe of a fan at ringside. He’s still larger than life, even if they happened to cut him down to size.
Key features: An assortment of ho-hum featurettes on adapting the book, incorporating old fight footage, and other details join a selection of animated trivia cards.