That was as good as advertised, that “Muhammad And Larry.” It wasn’t even quite a full hour, but the documentary about the fight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes made me feel sad, angry, touched, tickled and embarrassed. It’s an exceptionally well-made film, painful as it is, on the whole, to watch. ESPN is to be luxuriously praised for airing this film (debuting Tuesday) that no one wanted when it was put together so very skillfully around 30 years ago by Albert Maysles. It’s the second wonderful, insightful, tragic boxing documentary this year featuring Ali, the other HBO’s “Thrilla in Manila.” This one was a little better, because there was none of the one-sidedness of that film, none of the exploitation of its subjects. When boxing scribe Bernie Fernandez calls “Muhammad and Larry” the second-best boxing documentary ever, after “When We Were Kings,” well, if there’s another contender out there for second place, I haven’t seen it.
Ali shouldn’t have taken the fight that is the subject of the film, of course, as he should have stopped fighting years before, and as we learned from the film, he couldn’t accurately touch his finger to his nose during an examination. Throughout the film, his speech is slurred, he struggles to connect with the speed bag and he looks sluggish when he’s in the ring, getting battered around by sparring partners as spectators watch to awkward silence — on purpose, he said foolishly, to get acclimated to the punches after a two year layoff.
If there’s one major thing I take away from this, it’s that the people who train a boxer, who work for him, simply have to intervene when he is risking his life and health beyond the routine risk inherent to the sport. Ali believed, “I always find a way.” Asked why Ali thought he could win, trainer Angelo Dundee said, “Because when he looks in the mirror, he sees himself.” Yet Dundee never told Ali to call it quits, because Dundee said, well, he’s a boxer, and it’s his right to decide how to go out. “I’m not God,” Dundee said. Except for this: The truly great fighters never believe they can lose. They never back down, no matter what. It is EXACTLY other people who should be telling a boxer when he should call it quits, because he won’t do it otherwise. And if he won’t listen — as he wouldn’t when people told him to stop taking thyroid medication, which he took because of some quackery by a doctor who visited him and wrongly thought he needed it — then the people around him should quit and refuse to be a part of it. How much does money have to do with people helping a shot boxer fight on? A ton, I bet, and it’s times like this I’m reminded of how much evil there is in the world, that someone would care more about cash than whether a human being is permanently crippled.
Aside from that major lesson, the character studies of Ali and Holmes are excellent. Ali is funny, charming, charismatic — he grows a mustache and calls himself “Dark Gable,” he does magic tricks for kids. Holmes is likable in his own way, but thorny and a little cheesy, too — when he tries to make up a poem, a la Ali, he fumbles his words badly. Although he cries when he beats Ali, whom he calls a friend, later Holmes has some hostility toward Ali, having lived in his shadow so long, saying that Ali likes you as long as he sees you as being beneath him. But the video from the buildup to the fight shows quite the opposite; while talking to the filmmaker about what Holmes said about him in advance of their fight, the filmmaker says, “He likes you,” and a split second later, very sincerely, Ali answers, “I like him.” Despite that bitterness, Holmes comes across as a sincere dude who’s capable of being a little funny himself, joking that he married his wife because he was impressed she had a red Toyota. And “he took the money out of the ashtray,” his wife says, shaking her head, which turns one of Holmes negatives — he was a conservative personality, to say the least — into an endearing trait.
Both men come off as triumphant figures. Even if Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s old fight doctor and one of the few people in Ali’s camp principled enough to have told him to stop fighting and to quit when he didn’t, petulantly calls Holmes “just the next guy to come along,” well, the boxing writers filmed chatting it up make sure we know that Holmes was an underrated great. He knows he could have beaten Ali not just the way he did it but also if both of them were in their primes, which makes him, in a way, just like Ali. He has a fine life, healthy, successful in business, a collection of belts that includes one from a local garlic festival in Easton and something short of the recognition he and his wife believe he deserves, but Ali “can talk better than me.” Ali obviously can’t talk better than Holmes now, but he’s a revered figure around the world, inspirational to everyone, including the bathroom attendant who bet on Ali to beat Holmes “because he gave me his dignity.”
Not that Ali couldn’t have had it both ways if he’d hung up the gloves after the Thrilla in Manila.