Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Facing Ali

Fighting with the Champ

By David Luhrssen
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Facing Ali, the documentary by director Pete McCormack (out Dec. 29 on DVD), is a well-made examination of the career of world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. It’s also an insightful look into the sport of boxing, told by a gamut of professionals, including many who fought Ali. As the interviews point out, in the early decades of the 20th century professional boxers in the U.S. were often Irish, Italian or Jewish—the recent, put-upon immigrants. By mid-century the focus shifted to the nation’s largest and perhaps oldest minority, African Americans, whose presence in the ring was once out of bounds. Nowadays, many boxers are part of the newest rising immigrant tide, the Latinos.

Several of the speakers in the documentary made the same point: Rich kids don’t become professional boxers. It’s not the sport of kings but an escape hatch for the lower class—a hoop dream with a broken nose at the end.

Ali remains the world’s most famous fighter, years after he hung up the gloves. With his emergence coinciding with the civil rights movement, he became a symbol of black pride and assertion in the 1960s. After embracing the Nation of Islam, his baroque braggadocio took on more substance. Because of his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, he became a pariah to many Americans.

His success as a boxer resulted from a combination of size and agility. Ali was a gazelle pitted against lumbering bears. His celebrity success came from his knack as an entertainer. With his rapid, rhythmic wordplay, he would have been a rap star in a later age. To its credit, Facing Ali doesn’t mask the dark side of the sport, the mobsters and violence endemic in the backrooms and the ring itself.

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