Monday, June 21, 2010

Facing Ali

Directed by Peter McCormack.
2009. Rated R, 100 minutes.
Ron Lyle
George Foreman
Joe Frazier
George Chuvalo
Sir Henry Cooper
Ken Norton
Earnie Shavers
Larry Holmes
Leon Spinks
Ernie Terrell

Former boxers discuss their experiences during and surrounding their fights with Muhammad Ali. Though it amounts to little more than a love letter, there is still lots of insight to be gained. Most of the fighters talk about the technique they used against Ali as well as what he did to them. They also talk about the circus atmosphere he often created before fights and how their bouts with him impacted their lives going forward. His stance against the Vietnam War is also a big topic of conversation since it is a large part of the Ali legend.

Three men dominate the proceedings, and rightfully so. George Chuvalo is the most intriguing. He doesn’t just kiss up to Ali. He very matter of factly tells us what he likes and dislikes about the champ. He also tells stories of how certain fights came about or turned out. Of course, the infamous “phantom punch” that floored Sonny Liston is Ali’s second fight with him is a big sticking point with him. Whether you believe him, or not, Chuvalo comes across as giving a first-hand account of the shadowy side of boxing history. He also seems to be the healthiest of the battle-worn bunch.

No less clear-headed is Ron Lyle. He has a certain intensity in his gaze and speech that make you listen. He’s also keenly aware and appreciative of the fact that his place in boxing history is based on the fact he gave Ali a tough fight.

All of the fighters are interesting, in their own way. However, it’s the last fighter we meet, Leon Spinks that lifts us from the seemingly endless streams of deadpan seriousness. Nevermind that his speech is so raspy and occasionally garbled the filmmakers saw fit to put up subtitles when he spoke (the same goes for Ken Norton, by the way). He’s so obviously excited to be doing an interview, he infectiously heightens our spirits. He’s unfiltered and honest, not only when he says that Ali was his idol growing up, but also when he says he never understood why it was so important for Ali to change his name from Cassius Clay. He even mocks many in the black community who followed suit when Ali announced his faith and new moniker. Spinks also drops in four-letter words, broad smiles and hearty laughter. He just feels natural.

Overall, this is great for boxing buffs and Ali aficionados. If you’re neither and didn’t grow up during the sixties or seventies, it may not hold much weight for you. I did, it does for me.

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