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From The Greatest to The Last Round: Muhammad Ali on screen and in books

This story has been updated from its original 2007 publication.

For decades, Muhammad Ali’s life has been the subject of documentaries, features and books. If you’re looking for more insight on the late boxer, here are some of the most notable:

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1974) 

This documentary is an interesting, unvarnished look at Ali during his first career and his exile, although the lack of narration may frustrate some viewers less familiar with Ali. Particularly fascinating is seeing how Ali affected the rising consciousness of the young African-Americans interviewed in the film. Just don’t confuse this with the feature film of the same name starring Ali himself three years later

The Greatest (1977) 

Ali played himself in a whitewashed version of his story (Ernest Borgnine plays his trainer Angelo Dundee). It’s a bit odd watching a 34-year-old Ali play his younger self, but strictly a curio for the devoted fan. The centrepiece song for the film is The Greatest Love of All, performed by George Benson and a massive hit a decade later for Whitney Houston.

When We Were Kings (1996) 

Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning doc of Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle” gained more poignancy by sitting on the shelf for a couple of decades. You are absolutely transported to 1974 Zaire for the strange pageantry of the promotion, with amusing context provided by Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. The only quibble is that George Foreman, whose second-act transformation is one of the most dramatic of any American public figure in modern times, is a relatively minor player.  

USA Muhammad Ali Will Smith 2001

The late Muhammad Ali jokes with actor Will Smith in 2001 as they arrived for the premiere of Smith’s new film Ali in Hollywood. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

Ali (2001) 

This is the film that younger generations might think of first when it comes to Ali, starring Will Smith as the formidable boxer. The movie gets all the details right, and Smith got an Oscar nomination for his powerful role. But if you’re only going to choose one film to watch, this one isn’t ideal. Despite an electric early sequence set to the music of Ali’s friend Sam Cooke, director Michael Mann somehow managed to make a movie about Ali without enough soul.

The Last Round (2003)

In an age where a heavyweight title fight can’t even get in the sports pages, this great National Film Board production on the uproar surrounding the 1966 Ali-George Chuvalo bout at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto astounds for showing how Ali provoked a reaction at every turn. Chased out of the U.S. due to his controversial nature and Vietnam War stance, Ali saw somewhat of a safe haven in Canada – though Conn Smythe would resign from the MLG board in protest of the bout.

Chuvalo vs. Ali

March 29, 1966: George Chuvalo fights Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. (AP)

Muhammad and Larry (2009)

Part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, this takes a look at Ali trying to win back the heavyweight title in 1980 against former sparring partner Larry Holmes. The segments with old sportswriters reminiscing are a bit cringe-worthy, but the vérité footage of the two men in their training camps is up to the standard previously set by co-director Albert Maysles in his critically hailed Grey Gardens and Salesman docs.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)

Along with When We Were Kings, essential viewing. Given the widespread love for Ali in recent decades, it’s easy to forget how divisive he was. This documentary provides that context, focusing specifically on his years in the wilderness after he refused induction into the military and was stripped of his boxing title. It includes interviews beyond the usual suspects, such as Ali’s first wife, Khalilah, Louis Farrakhan and the lone living member of the all-white Louisville management syndicate that launched the fighter’s pro career.

Ali inspired Rocky and others

Did you think Sylvester Stallone created Apollo Creed out of whole cloth? Sylvester Stallone wrote the original Rocky film after watching Ali’s title defence against New Jersey journeyman Chuck Wepner in 1975.

Rocky vs Real Life

Sylvester Stallone alongside Michael B. Jordan, star of the film Creed, a spinoff of the popular Rocky franchise which was initially influenced by one of Ali’s fights. (Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press)

Requiem for a Heavyweight, released in 1962, is still one of the greatest films ever made about the rough and tumble business of boxing. It briefly features Ali, then Cassius Clay, as the young tiger pummelling Mountain Rivera, a memorable portrayal by Anthony Quinn of a washed-up fighter handled by a morally challenged manager, Jackie Gleason.

The Ali bookshelf

A good portion of all books written about boxing are about Ali, but there’s a lot of chaff. Here are some entertaining and thought-provoking reads from recent years to seek out online or in print at the bookstore or library.  

Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser, 1992 (Simon & Schuster)

This is the place to start for the uninitiated. Hauser provides analysis and context but most of the book unfolds in oral history form with comments from Ali and just about everyone who crossed his path. That includes former family to former opponents as well as the likes of Jesse Jackson and Bob Dylan. And it doesn’t shy away from some of Ali’s flaws and faults.  

King of the World by David Remnick, 1998 (Vintage)

This is essential reading. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New Yorker editor spins a brilliant tale of the early 1960s heavyweight division and the intertwining paths of the three champions who would hold the belt within an 18-month span: Ali, Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, all wildly different and compelling personalities.

The Muhammad Ali Reader, ed. Gerald Early, 1998 (HarperCollins Canada)

This is a combination of reflections on Ali through the decades from dozens, including Hunter S. Thompson, Jackie Robinson, A. Bartlett Giamatti. Ali himself also expounds on marital and race relations in a 1975 Playboy interview which would raise a firestorm in today’s social media outrage climate.

The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier by Mark Kram, 2001 (Harper Perennial)

A cranky, controversial book by the late Sports Illustrated writer, who sought to redress what he felt was a revisionism and hagiography that has arisen regarding Ali’s life. A perfectly fair approach, though Kram too often elevates Frazier – not always a prince himself – at Ali’s expense. Still, it provides more food for thought (e.g., What makes a hero?) than the many fawning Ali books. Also, the writer was there for much of the madness, so there are details here not found elsewhere.  

Facing Ali by Stephen Brunt, 2003 (Vintage Canada)

Some CanCon and a bit more levity than the scholarly seriousness with which Ali is often treated, Brunt spans the globe to talk to the men of very different backgrounds who share the similarity of how being a part of the Ali circus as being his opponent became a life-transforming event.

Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship by Dave Kindred, 2007 (Free Press)

The tale of the sympathetic yet transactional relationship that dominated sports television in the 1960s and the 1970s: Ali and the unlikeliest of sportscasters, Howard Cosell, an untelegenic former lawyer with a loved-or-loathed presence. How credible is the author? When Cosell expressed his disgust with pro boxing and turned his back on the sport in 1982, it was Kindred with the scoop.

Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, 2016 (Basic Books)

Just released in February, it is strictly for those who want to take a deep dive into his path from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and learn more about Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. There is a lot to learn from it, indeed, though the tone can at times be off-putting — the authors seem a little too insistent on correcting what they see as previous misinterpretations in print of the tug-of-war for Ali’s influence between Malcolm and Elijah.

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