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In Focus

On HBO, Muhammad Ali is still the greatest

Muhammad Ali won the world heavyweight championship three times, in 1964, 1974, and 1978.
Muhammad Ali won the world heavyweight championship three times, in 1964, 1974, and 1978.(2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises LLC)

“In a boxing match there’s a lot of thinking and timing,” says Muhammad Ali in Antoine Fuqua’s masterful two-part documentary about the heavyweight champion, “What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali.” “You’ve got to pace yourself, like a horse race.” Fuqua, who has established himself as an adept director of action movies like “Training Day” (2001) and “The Equalizer” (2014), might have had those words in mind while making the film. It not only dances like a butterfly and stings like a bee but is also exquisitely thought out, precisely timed, and has the pacing not of a horse race but an epic.

Ironically, Ali’s comment comes while he analyzes his first defeat as a heavyweight, when he lost to Joe Frazier, in 1971. It was a match to restore his championship, which had been stripped from him after he refused to be inducted into the military during the Vietnam War. Ali’s claim to be a conscientious objector was denied, and he was convicted of draft evasion (the conviction was overturned in 1971 by the Supreme Court). Already unpopular because of his gleeful self-promotion, perceived uppityness, and especially his embrace of the Black Muslim movement, this principled stand against an unjust war made him arguably the most despised athlete in the United States.

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Now revered, Ali has been sometimes overlooked as a politically defiant, outspoken critic of injustice. Today most regard Ali, who died in 2017 at 74, as a benevolent if impish icon and an affable philanthropist. But Fuqua focuses on Ali’s lifelong insistence on remaining true to himself, pursuing the cause of social justice and espousing his faith, regardless of public opinion.

A convert to the Nation of Islam in 1964 under the tutelage of Malcolm X, the then-Cassius Clay took the name Muhammad Ali. But it took a while to get people to accept his new identity. The film’s title comes from Ali’s 1967 bout with Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him by his old name, only to have Ali taunt him with the question “What’s my name?” while mercilessly punishing him for 15 rounds.

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Ali’s story unfolds with a repeated dramatic arc, victories followed by defeats and comebacks followed by setbacks, all illustrated with a wealth of archival footage. Fuqua includes numerous Ali interviews, which suggest that the champ may have been one of the greatest of talk-show guests — and that Dick Cavett may have been the greatest talk-show host.

Shown in a quick montage of clips the lithe, lethal fighter wins Golden Gloves championships and the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. Ali relates in an interview how after that victory he was refused service in a diner when he returned to his home in Louisville, Ky. He jokes, “They said, ‘We don’t serve Negroes,’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t eat them.’” But he adds, “I thought if I had to leave a restaurant in my hometown something is wrong.” It was a turning point in his determination to defy racist stereotypes and to achieve greatness on his own terms.

That involved winning the world heavyweight championship three times, defeating Sonny Liston in 1964, George Foreman in 1974, and Leon Spinks in 1978. He decided to retire in 1979 while still champion, but driven perhaps by hubris and a refusal to accept mortal limitations he changed his mind and tried for one more title. The reigning champ, Larry Holmes, a former Ali sparring partner, beat him soundly in 1980. Following the fight, a tearful Holmes lauded his fallen idol as “one of the baddest heavyweights in the world.” In the next fight, Trevor Berbick easily beat Ali, in 1981. Commenting on the debacle, the 39-year-old Ali says, “Father Time has caught up with me.” After that he retired for good.

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Then began the development of the image of Ali that most recognize today. He’s shown schmoozing with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Fidel Castro. He wins humanitarian awards and aids in the release of 15 hostages from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 1984 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome and in a 1996 profile on “60 Minutes” he looks like a broken man. But just as the pathos grows unbearable, he pulls another fast one, a perfect prank on reporter Ed Bradley and a sneaky jab at Father Time.

Parts one and two of “What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali” will air back-to-back on May 14, beginning at 8 p.m. on HBO.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.