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Thursday, December 27, 2001
Updated: January 31, 5:11 PM ET
'Ali': Rumble is right; legs all wrong

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Muhammad Ali once grew a mustache. He didn't look much like himself with it, so he decided to cut it off. It had caused more frowns than he'd anticipated. He didn't need a mirror to see he'd made a mistake. People's reactions told him. This fact speaks to the conundrum facing Will Smith in his attempt to "capture" Muhammad Ali on the big screen.

Will Smith
Will Smith was believable as Muhammad Ali ...
Jon Voight had it easier in playing Howard Cosell in "Ali." Denzel Washington didn't have as much of a challenge portraying Malcolm X in Spike Lee's movie of the same name as Will Smith had in playing Ali.

Why?

Voight and Washington never had to take off their clothes. They never had to re-create a physical specimen and his movements, both of which had never before been seen under the sun. Their trick was all in mimicry -- well, OK, maybe not all in the mimicry, but once they got the voice and the mannerisms down properly, they were halfway home. The rest was up to the script, how clever and evocative and compelling it was in drawing in the audience.

Realizing this, we'll call Michael Mann's docu-epic "The Lost-Found Movie of 'Ali.' " Docu-epic, almost a new genre, because the hand-held camera effect gives documentary feel to stretches of it. Lost-Found because the picture lost its way at first, but found its purpose at the end. The parentheses which contain the movie are the two great, some say impossible, victories of Ali's career: his win over Sonny Liston in 1964 in Miami to gain the heavyweight title, and his great victory over George Foreman in Kinshasha, Zaire, in 1974 to regain the title. Each assures his legend forever.

Apparently, it is this final fight, Ali-Foreman, the "Rumble in the Jungle," that Mann wanted to study and recreate and analyze. In order to get there, he had to construct a film along the way.

Will Smith as Ali
... until he had to take his shirt off and recreate the first fight against Sonny Liston.
Although the opening has its charms -- quickly establishing Ali's inner motivation and giving background underneath a nightclub solo by Sam Cooke -- as soon as Will Smith got in the ring with "Sonny Liston," I wasn't buying it. Will's trunks were too long.

And those weren't Ali's legs.

This was Michael Mann's conundrum: You can recreate fortitude, atmosphere, period, beauty. But physical genius? When Ali fought Sonny Liston, he proved he was unlike any athlete -- certainly any boxer -- ever. Here was a 6-foot-3, 211-pound man who bounced and moved as fluidly as a welterweight ... and not just any welterweight, but like Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson was on hand at the Liston fight, but got no cameo in the "Ali" film.

Neither did Joe Louis, who was also there, at ringside, doing commentary. After Round 1, Louis said, "This is greatest round of heavyweight boxing we've ever seen." Actors playing Sam Cooke and Jim Brown did get cameos: Personally, I can still hear Clay/Ali yelling: "Sugar Ray and I are two pretty dancers! We can't be beat!", as Robinson tried to cover Ali's mouth, smiling for the camera all the while.

Muhammad Ali and Will Smith
Smith, right, did an admirable job of mimicking Ali outside the ring.
The key to this unprecedented heavyweight was Clay/Ali's legs. His white shorts were almost as short as Daisy Duke's that night, revealing those great pins, from Michelangelo by way of God. No way for Will Smith, no matter how well he primed his upper body, to recreate the legs. No one had ever seen legs like that before in boxing; no one has since. And the speed of his punches, the speed of his jab -- aieeeee! With these two impossibilities involved in evoking the 20-year-old Ali, the Liston fight recreation was bound to fail. No one could imitate that man. He was nonpareil.

Some have speculated that Liston "threw" that fight to Clay/Ali. These are people who (a) were not there that night; (b) have never honestly assessed the tapes of the fight; and/or (c) have some kind of bone to pick with Ali, some dislike of him. Because anybody who looks at that fight coldly will see that, no matter the pre-fight build-up, Liston -- the "Big Ugly Bear," as Clay called him -- basically got his ass kicked. Clay backed Liston up, with hard combinations. He was just too quick, too fast, too mobile, too nimble for Liston. As amazing as it must have seemed then, and does now, Clay/Ali outclassed the champion. It was as plain as the broken nose on a fighter's face: Liston could never beat him.

In reality, the first Clay-Liston fight was a real beat-down, a clinic, an exposé. Which led to the desperate measures of linament being applied to Liston's gloves, and those gloves then being shoved into Ali's eyes during clinches. The "Ali" film got all this down well.

The Liston rematch was also well accounted for in the film. The one-punch KO, the "phantom punch," was recreated accurately as a stunning chopping right, on the button. Could Liston have gotten up? Probably. But for what? Only to be outclassed again? Liston's staying down reminded me of Roberto Duran saying, "No mas," in his rematch against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1981. A boxer knows better than the people who are betting on him when he's done.

This gets us to the film's filler material, a tour-de-force for Will Smith. He gets Ali right outside the ring; it's fun going inside his meetings with Sonji, Belinda and finally Veronica, his first three wives, and his conflict with the government concerning his draft status as a conscientious objector on grounds of religious beliefs.

Personally, I felt there was more Malcolm X in the film than was necessary. Recreating Malcolm's assassination and, briefly, Martin Luther King's, seems a bit off the narrative track, but it follows a line that begins during the opening scenes when the boy Clay sees a newspaper photo of the disfigured 15-year-old lynching victim, Emmett Till.

Albert Hall as Elijah Muhammad? No ... way. Too confusing, because Hall played one of the underlings of Elijah Muhammad in the picture "Malcolm X."

Ali
Cosell comes off right in Voight's cloaking. Still, I wish more interviews between Ali and other talk-show hosts, moderators and reporters had been included. One I particularly remember: a British TV host, a combination of David Frost, Oscar Wilde and a pimply-faced teenager, tried to talk down to Ali intellectually and Ali really let him have it. Something to the effect that, No, I'm not as smart as you are -- I'm smarter than you are, better than you are. You came to me, I didn't come to you; your university called me, I didn't call you; your president had lunch with me and said how impressed he was. He asked me to lecture to two classes before I went. When's the last time he had lunch with you, yada-yada, and I'm not doing Ali's riffing any justice here, but if you ever heard it, all you could do was sit back and say, "Wow."

Ali was uneducated, unlettered, ungrammatical -- but not smart?

My God, no.

This sort of comes through. But what really comes through is that he was, as a man, principled, though it's all static, staccato, not fluid, as we are accustomed to great film narratives being fluid. The flaw in the film might be in the flaw in us watching it.

It's a cross between the documentary "When We Were Kings," the campy "The Greatest" and "Malcolm X," all tied together by the stylings of Mann.

And it all leads to ... what?

To this, I think: Once, Mark Twain wrote a sequel to his magnum opus "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The sequel was called "Tom Sawyer Abroad." He wrote this entire piece just to get one image down on the page for posterity. He had a herky-jerky setup of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and the slave Jim in a hot-air balloon. Balloon goes abroad. To Africa! The balloon crosses the Sahara, and finally, Tom and Huck let Jim off on the head of the Sphinx. While they float off to watch Jim on the head of the Sphinx from a distance in order to get "perspective," Jim waves both arms across each other, then stands on his head and kicks his legs like a frog, all to gain their attention. Mark Twain's point was obvious, to me. Hey, this is the guy who made this. We'd better think about this the next time we feel like abusing him. Mark Twain constructed that entire piece just for that one image.

I think Michael Mann constructed "Ali" just to re-create the "Rumble in the Jungle.

Jon Voight, Will Smith
Jon Voight's protrayal of Howard Cosell rang true.
And in that sense, the film succeeds. Because by then Ali could be physically recreated. His boxing shorts were longer, the legs under them were 32 years old by 1974, and ponderous. Will Smith could bring it off now, and did. This was the classic battle between David & Goliath, Beowulf & Grendel, North Carolina & Kansas with Wilt.

The recreation of the "Rumble in the Jungle," from the time Smith as Ali enters the stadium, is near-perfect. Through the medium of film, the most powerful and mentally invasive of the arts, the viewer is taken inside the boxing ring. Taken there to fight, give blows and accept blows, and even to think Ali's own thoughts as he grapples with Death, really, in the person of probably the most fearsome puncher in the history of the heavyweight division. Going into the fight, people feared not for Ali's reputation, but for his life. To be able to think, plot and plan in that situation is the height of cunning, bravery and intelligence.

It's as if Mann's filming this statement: "Easy to sit out here and judge. Come in here and see and feel."

Really, this one "fight" puts all other fight recreations on film to shame. This particular evocation is better than anything in "Raging Bull," or "Hard Times," or "Body and Soul," or "Rocky." From now on, all future fight scenes in films must be compared to this for authenticity.

Mann gets it super right. Almost untouchably right. Has Ali thinking -- in a nice effect, we can hear him thinking --after Round 1 that he can't keep up this pace against the younger, stronger, murderous puncher. So he decides to "rope-a-dope," let his arms, elbows and sides anticipate, muffle, block and absorb horrific blows from a human machine of total destruction, round after round, until George eventually punches himself out. Then Ali dispatches him, much in the manner that a matador dispatches a bull. Ali applies the coup de grace right hand, then steps aside and allows George to fall of his own weight.

Mann, Smith and The Actor Playing George get this choreography so right that even the most jaded Ali lover or hater will be riveted.

Once he had accomplished this scene, it was like Mann, much like Mark Twain, said, "OK, this is what I wanted to do, this is what I wanted to say, this is what I wanted to recreate. We're done."

And so are we. But only for now. Happy New Year, fight fans.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."