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Muhammad Ali: Greatest in the ring — and everywhere else?

John Rooney/Associated Press/file 1965

Stardom is such a mysterious thing. Why does lightning strike him, but not her? Her, but not him? Once in a very great while there’s no mystery whatsoever. The appeal of some individuals is so overwhelmingly obvious as to appear all but ordained by the gods — which can make them seem themselves godlike.

That would certainly apply to the individual who likely qualifies as the 20th century’s ultimate superstar: Muhammad Ali. “I am the greatest” was less boast than statement of fact. He was beautiful, witty, intelligent, playful, shrewd, innocent (or giving that appearance), poetic, dynamic, political (yet eventually transcending politics), magnetic, seemingly unstoppable. Except that he was stoppable: Ali is also a tragic figure, an unrivaled athletic champion afflicted with Parkinson’s disease.

The new documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” downplays Ali’s prizefighting, but it also downplays his celebrity side — how he was box-office champ as well as boxing champ. Its focus is on Ali as political figure. But so much of his impact in the political and social realm sprang from his enormous personal charisma: his sheer, almost-frightening star power. Perhaps that power has never been more evident than at the end of the second championship fight between Ali and Sonny Liston. A victorious Ali stands in triumph over his fallen opponent in all his magnificent animal splendor — and that is a lot of magnificent animal splendor. It’s a tableau worthy of the Roman Colosseum — with Ali as emperor and gladiator both. He came, he saw, he definitely conquered.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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