"Is there any question as to why Ali fell apart? Not if you were around looking at him. Not if you saw him every day, talking slower, walking slower, moving slower, punching less. You could see him falling apart." -Ferdie PachecoThese first four "30 for 30" films have all been tragedies in some way, and "Muhammad and Larry" is the grandest tragedy yet. The timeframe of the series (which has to cover events from ESPN's lifespan) means we can't get a film about Ali when he was The Greatest of All Time, when he was faster, and funnier, than any other fighter on the planet. Nor can we see the Ali of the '70s, who had slowed down but gained in toughness what he lost in speed, and who survived legendary slugfests(*) with George Foreman and Joe Frazier. There are traces of that man in "Muhammad and Larry," particularly in the snippets of him bantering with the visitors to his training camp (and in magic trick sequence, which becomes incredibly poignant when you realize the Parkinson's has robbed him of the ability to even do something as silly as sleight-of-hand), but this is an older, slower Ali.
(*) The great irony of The Rumble in the Jungle is that, by winning through his ability to take a punch, rather than his ability to dodge one, Ali set himself up for all the brutal hits that would lead to Parkinson's. The Holmes fight was just the most infamous example of it, but the man took a savage beating for almost a decade.
And those classic Ali fights have been well-covered by the dozens of Ali documentaries and books out there (HBO did a terrific Thrilla in Manila film earlier this year), whereas Albert Maysles' footage of the build-up to Ali-Holmes sat on a shelf for decades, because no one wanted to revisit the horror of that one-sided demolition of the beloved Ali.
Then "30 for 30" came along, and Maysles' archival footage was combined with contemporary interviews(**) - shot by Maysles with help from co-director Bradley Kaplan - and so we get to see the car wreck of a fight unfold in slow motion. We barely see any of the fight itself, but there's such a sense of dread over the build-up footage, and such regret in the voices of most of the 21st century interviewees, that we only need a few glimpses to recognize how awful this was, and how sad that nobody could talk the champ out of it.
(**) One of the contemporary interview subjects is Star-Ledger sports columnist emeritus Jerry Izenberg, who appears in all the Ali films because he's one of a small circle of guys who was close to the champ in those days. (He's also one of a handful of writers to have covered every single Super Bowl in person.) I would never want to be a sportswriter today, not least because of the whole "no cheering in the pressbox" thing, but the access that guys like Jerry got back in his heyday was really remarkable. "Sportswriter in the 1960s" is definitely one of the dream jobs at the top of my list should I ever finish my time machine.
At the same time, "Muhammad and Larry" manages to tell the ultimately happy story of Larry Holmes. Holmes never got much respect as champ, in part because everyone felt bad about the whupping he laid on Ali, in part because he was a fairly bland, unassuming guy compared to Ali, Frazier, Foreman and the other men who had dominated the heavyweight ranks for the previous two decades. But it feels oddly refreshing to see a relatively well-adjusted champ, one who gets so much obvious, simple pleasure out of listening to songs written about him, and who's perfectly happy to still be living in his hometown of Easton.
Only three more of these films to air by the end of '09: next week's "Without Bias," then "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" on Nov. 10 and "The U" on Dec. 12. I have the first two of those and hope to watch them soon, so the plan will be to keep writing each film up as it airs.
What did everybody else think?