One of the often-repeated sports debates, no matter which one you choose, is who is the greatest of all time in a chosen profession. For me, they are as follows: in baseball, it is Babe Ruth; basketball, Michael Jordan, of course; for hockey, you have to go with Wayne Gretzky; football is a tough one because I am biased against Tom Brady, so I will say, in true homer fashion, Walter Payton. Those who know me best (and read this blog) may roll their eyes, but take a look at some of the things he did on the gridiron. When he came to the Chicago Bears in the 1970s, his new team stunk. Their defense was not near the standard it achieved in the mid-1980s, and on offense Payton was all the options. He ran back kicks and punts, and served as back-up quarter back and punter. You cannot find too many other players who wore as many hats. My dad always described the Bears offense during those years in three ways: Walter Payton right, Walter Payton left, and Walter Payton up the middle. Speaking of my dad, another sports figure he turned me on to was Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay. In particular, he would describe the fight between Ali and George Foreman, the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, with more experienced Ali taunting Foreman between massive blows from the younger boxer. Our parents are so key to our development, and it is without reservation that I still say that Ali is the greatest boxer to have ever entered the professional ring. This is a big reason why I love Ali (2001).
Before our title character in Ali takes his Muslim name, he is Cassius Clay (Will Smith) about to go up against Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt) for the heavyweight title of the world in Miami, Florida, in 1964. With a montage overlaid with the sweet sounds of Sam Cooke (David Elliott), we see Ali preparing for the bout. He is aided in this endeavor by his trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and his cornerman/hype-person Drew “Bundini” Brown (Jamie Foxx). Interspersed are snippets of Ali’s upbringing in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father, Cassius Sr. (Giancarlo Esposito), painted portraits of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, and little Cassius witnessed other acts of racism. Between these scenes, and the not-so-subtle verbal assault from Liston, Ali is poised to take his frustrations into the match. His subsequent seizing of the title gives him the platform to renounce his given name and let the world know that he has joined the Nation of Islam. This splinter (and by “splinter,” I intend its other meaning too, which is a small, sharp piece of a larger whole) of Islam is not what you think it is, despite its title, but I digress. At first, he takes on the name Cassius X before the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall), sensing an opportunity for good publicity with such a well-known and liked figure, gives him the “original” Muslim name Muhammad Ali. This is to be the beginning of many problems for Ali. At first, there are little things, such as having to distance himself from his old friend Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles). Then there is trouble with his first wife, Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith), who, despite converting to Islam, could never be Muslim enough for him. The biggest problem, however, comes when the draft for the Vietnam War is instituted. He publicly states that he has no interest in, as he put it in real life, “going . . . 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people.” Despite this hard stance, he dutifully shows up for the draft, but when they call Cassius Clay instead of Muhammad Ali, he refuses induction. This is an offense punishable with jail time. Though he never spends any real time in prison, appealing his case all the way to the Supreme Court on conscientious objector grounds, during his legal battle he has all his licenses to box revoked. In fact, he did not get a professional fight for three years, during the prime of his career. Being cut off from his livelihood put a strain on his family, a growing one too with his new wife Belinda (Nona Gaye). Thus, it is not surprising that once he gets back in the ring to fight Joe Frazier (James Toney), he loses. What helps him obtain another shot are two things: Frazier loses to George Foreman (Charles Shufford), and infamous boxing promoter Don King (Mykelti Williamson) sees an opportunity to make a substantial amount of money. Capitalizing (and that word is chosen purposely) on the gaining popularity of African American culture, King conceives of the Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. No one is giving the older Ali much of a chance against the younger, stronger Foreman, including his wife. Yet, Ali stands in there, giving birth to the “rope-a-dope” tactic of waiting out your opponent on the edges of the ring. Before thousands of people in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Foreman fell to Ali in 1974.
Ali ends on that note, though in real life his boxing career went on for another seven years, well past his prime. He also lost his title one more time, before gaining and losing for the last time. His final fight was in 1981. Though the film is certainly a dramatized version of ten years of Ali’s life, there are enough accurate moments in it to satisfy this amateur (at best) historian of the former world heavyweight champion. If you have read about him, or watched some of his fights and interviews as I have, one of the things that will stand out from the film is how much Will Smith becomes Muhammad Ali. Usually this is enough for the Academy Awards, but irritatingly the Oscar for Best Actor that year went to Denzel Washington for Training Day (2001), of all films. Regardless, Smith had the speaking cadence, but more importantly, the swagger down pat. This is also why I think Ali is the greatest boxer of all time. Did he have the perfect record as Rocky Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight boxer? No. But what he said with his mouth he could back up with his fists, and he did so repeatedly. With him there was also a sense that he was fighting for something bigger than himself. Athletes today, especially the more popular ones, see their role in society as not simply scoring touchdowns or hitting homeruns. They use the attention they receive to raise awareness about causes for which they care, and they have Muhammad Ali to thank for providing the model. This all comes through well in the film. There are other snippets as well. Of the numerous moments, I will share my favorite. After Ali defeats Foreman, up sidles Don King with a big you-know-what eating grin on his face. As soon as he reaches the once and future champ, that smile disappears quickly after something Ali says. You see it happen in the movie, but if you go back and watch the footage from 1974, you will see the same thing. Don King is not the nicest of men, so it is something to see him taken down a peg, whatever it was that was said.
Forgive me, that was not a very Christian thing of me to say. In Ali, Faith is an important part of the story. While obviously not a Christian, I am at least happy that it was his Faith that got him through the difficult years when he could not fight. Still, at one point he confesses to not being a very good Muslim. One of the cornerstones of Islam as stated in the film is marriage, and that is something with which Christianity at least agrees. However, when Ali is in Kinshasa training to face Foreman, he is separated from his wife. While there, he meets another woman, Veronica Porche (Michael Michele), and begins consorting with her. It is while walking the streets with her that he admits that his main struggle is that he has been weak on women. It is understandable. Particularly in our day and age, our culture seems geared to increase the attractiveness between the sexes for only one purpose, and I probably do not need to say it. Along with it in recent decades has come a rise in divorces, abortions, and all manner of behaviors that I am sure my Muslim brothers and sisters would also find abhorrent. It is little wonder that fundamentalist women wear burkas. While I am neither suggesting this for Christian women, or saying that the fault lies entirely with the fairer sex, the one thing that is largely absent from all of it is any sense of restraint. Unsurprisingly, this seems to affect celebrities the most, and Ali was no different. Being away from families for such extended periods of time is difficult for the most dedicated of couples. Add in wealth and a sense of entitlement and you have a recipe for all kinds of extra-marital shenanigans. We get married not simply because we love somebody, though that is a necessary ingredient. Sexual attraction is part of it, too, but again fails to get at the whole. We do it because we are vowing to God to cherish this one person He has chosen for us. If it does not work out, it is because there was a failure somewhere in the process, either before the wedding day or in the years following. Luckily, we have a forgiving God.
Ali is rated R, though aside from a couple of curse words he utters in the ring in one scene, there is nothing else about it to warrant such a label. As a practicing Muslim, albeit as a member of the Nation of Islam, he does not drink or smoke. Bundini makes up for what Ali does not consume. Unfortunately, he does cheat on his wife, but there are no sex scenes. Interestingly, the one sex scene in the film is between him and Sonji, which is Smith’s real-life wife. There is no nudity, though. What you are left with is a solid sports movie about a complicated athlete with a unique career. Watch it some time.