Reviews Of Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami, And AKA Cassius Clay

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/25/11


  Growing up in the 1970s, the specter of heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali- whom I could never stand, was everywhere and, contrary to opinions voiced about him post-Parkinsonís Disease, he was the most despised athlete, worldwide, of that era. The most beloved was actually soccer superstar Pele. Nonetheless, in that era, and since, a raft of mediocre documentaries cum hagiographies have been made of the man, yet none have really gotten to that rotten core. Here are three of them that I watched in consecutive order: Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami, and AKA Cassius Clay.




  The first documentary I streamed was a 52 minute long one, directed by Carlos Larkin. Its title is Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, but while Netflix lists its year of creation and release as 1969 this is clearly wrong, as it goes in to length on Aliís post-fight career. Perhaps it was really 1999? This film is clearly the most hagiographical, as it does little but praise Ali. Glossed over are his tainted wins over Sonny Liston and his later association with Don King and the Mafia; which fixed a number of Aliís late 1970s fights that ended in Ďdecisionsí for him: think of the second Joe Frazier bout, his two Ďwinsí over Ken Norton, after Norton broke his jaw in their first fight (one of the great and most just moments in boxing history), his 1977 and 1978 15 round decisions against Earnie Shavers and Leon Spinks. Instead, there is the usual; parade of archival stills, newsreels, and clipped interviews with Ali sycophants. Yes, Ali won the heavyweight title three times and, yes, he should not have had it stripped from him for his refusal to enter the draft during the Vietnam War. But, little is mentioned that he only won the title because of the Mobís leaning on Liston, and then the infamous Phantom Punch, less than two minutes into the rematch, which goes down as the most blatant fix in boxing history; hell, there are films showing that no punch even landed, when seen from the side, yet this film, as the others, shows only the punch from Listonís behind, so one cannot fairly judge.

  His early years in Louisville, Kentucky, and his family life- a drunken father, etc., are barely given a mention, and an Ďincidentí in Las Vegas, where Sonny Liston jokingly pulled a gun on Ali are given precedence over the lass savory aspects of his career, such as his ties to Don King and his later career as a Mob shill- the very thing that Sonny Liston was accused of being, and for which he got undying shame and reprobation, but which are neatly glossed over by modern journalists, and this film- as well as the others reviewed here. Perhaps the worst thing this film does is show off its unprofessionalism and bias by constantly addressing Ali as Muhammad, rather than Ali. It even shows clips from the Ali-sponsored and starred in vehicle The Greatest, which is surely one of the worst boxing films in history. Oddly missing from this, and the other films, is Aliís association with Howard Cosell, the sportscaster, who is seen only in the background a few times. The film ends with a shot of Ali at the 1996 Olympics, given a replacement gold medal for his Olympic win as a heavyweight fighter, for the one he tossed away in 1960.




  Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami is a PBS documentary, thus a little better made than the first film, although there is no listed director. Shot in 2008, and clocking in at 54 minutes, it covers much of what the first film did, as both lean heavily on Aliís life in the 1960s. This one focuses on his training in Miami, in the years he first turned professional, and his training at the Fifth Street Gym. There are longer interviews with Ali trainers- Angelo Dundee, doctors- Ferdie Pacheco, and sychophantic journalists (who rave about how disciplined Ali was in regards to women and drink that some thought he was a homosexual), but, even more so than the first film, this film distorts history by not just glossing over reality, but adding in the narrative that Liston, far from taking a dive, was actively trying to cheat to win by having lineament applied to his gloves. This was an assertion made to explain Aliís reaction to some heavy shots he took from Liston that dazed him.

  The film does fairly well in exploring Aliís conversion to the Black Muslims, his betrayal of Malcolm X, and Aliís supposed later sorrow over that fact. The film is at its best when it explores the larger social issues of the day; such as the fact that Miami was ahead of the curve re: the Civil Rights Movement, and that it had sit-ins and demonstrations long before the more famed ones led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. It also focuses on little known fights of Aliísearly career, such as his almost getting knocked out by English fighter Henry Cooper, who was then the European Heavyweight Champion. It also makes good use of live footage from the Liston-Clay fights, but is far too slanted pro-Ali. Perhaps the best revelation the film makes is how pro wrestler Gorgeous George instructed Ali on how to use the media with an outrageous personality. Aliís millions are all because of that encounter. The relationship of Ali with the Black Muslims- especially Elijah Muhammad (who gave Ali his new name) and Malcolm X, is an interesting aspect; especially the knowledge that Malcolm X wanted the name bestowed upon Ali, and how Ali snubbed X shortly before his murder, are highlights of this film, but the hints that they give of Aliís solipsistic nature are never expounded upon. The film ends with Aliís being stripped of his title.




  The best of the tercet of films is the 1970 film A.K.A. Cassius Clay, filmed by boxing promoter Jimmy Jacobs, and released in the early 1970s. It checks in at 78 minutes in length. It is the most stylistically daring of the films, breaking the fourth wall, having Ali examine film highlights of himself and other boxers with boxing trainer Cus DíAmato, and being narrated by actor Richard Kiley, who announces as he sits on screen in a darkened theater. Unfortunately, after the 30 minute mark, or so, this film devolves in to yet another hagiography.

  It needed more of the comparisons to Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and other fighters of the past to make it interesting. Like the other films, it focuses on the 1960s and Aliís being stripped of the title, but by necessity, since it did not have the manís full career to work with. Yet, it again glosses over the shameful Ali-Liston fights. It does make some good points when it posits the question of what Ali is to do next (this was filmed when his fight career seemed over and Ali was reduced to scrounging together work on Broadway, where some of the film is shot in theatrical Our Town style). Kiley intones solemnly that Ali might be an even more effective spokesman for black America, now that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are dead, because, unlike them, he can martial together the disenchantment of college youth from white suburbia, and the rage of black extremists. To say that the film overstates its case is now obvious, in retrospect, but when one goes back to the time frame the film was made, it does seem like a legitimate speculation. After all, until the election of President Obama, there was a 40 year gap of black leadership on civil and ethical issues that was filled in only by marginal and shady leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton- two media hound preachers with fundamental problems and skeletons in their own personal closets. Like the second film, this one also broaches the idea that Sonny Listonís trainers tried to blind Ali in their first fight, but, again, nothing is said of the Phantom Punch in the second fight. The film therefore succeeds in recapitulating its subject matterís problems, which, themselves were merely recapitulations of the ills that have plagued America, at large, for decades: that of being al;l style and no substance. And this is at the base of the Ali legend, but something that will likely not be explored until Ali is finally dead.




  Unfortunately, all three films- Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami, and AKA Cassius Clay- fail to do what documentaries are charged with doing: uncovering the reality of any given subject matter, and in this failure none can be recommended as cinema nor journalism, although, in my order of viewing them, they each were a little better than their preceding film.

  What really needs to be made is an expose of Ali, his career, corruption, and personal misconduct: the films mention his four wives but little is mentioned on the reasons for the breakups. I earlier mentioned the 1973 fight where Ken Norton broke Aliís jaw and I recall watching that fight on television and cheering. Rare is it that the black hat gets his comeuppance, and Ali rarely did because he sold his soul to the devil. Yes, the manís years with Parkinsonís are sad to watch, but recalling what the man was like before he got sick, one is almost thankful that the hatred and rot he spewed (think of the stuff he said about Joe Frazier) cannot be launched any longer. One day, a film will come along and clear out all the lies, but, until then, fluff like these films are all we are left with. Sigh!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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