It has been over a month since his passing and I felt the need to share some of the material that helped me know more about Muhammad Ali as a person. Being someone who was born when he was already well past his boxing days, the only thing I could really do was watch his matches, interviews, and documentaries about his life during my formative years in the 2000s. I was able to do so with the power of the Internet, and it helped me appreciate and learn from such a remarkable man, both in and out of the ring.
There are a good number of documentaries out there detailing various aspects of Muhammad Ali’s life and career, and these seven are perhaps the best in encompassing someone so complex and interesting. You can watch these films and get a better idea of how he lived his life in the public eye and why he’s still talked about to this day, despite having been diminished and now being gone.
AKA Cassius Clay (1970)
This is definitely required viewing for boxing fans. Made during Muhammad Ali’s exile from boxing, it’s more like a sports program feature than just a run-in-the-mill biography. It wasn’t sure yet whether he’d box again, so it was more of a retrospective, with legendary trainer Cus D’Amato (he trained Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson) watching and analyzing his fights.
If you’re familiar with this footage of Muhammad Ali and Cus D’Amato play sparring, this is where it came from.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)
Most documentaries on Muhammad Ali would mention his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War, how it took away what were potentially the best years of his boxing career, how he was vindicated later on, and how his anti-war stance cemented his legacy beyond boxing. However, they would then move on to the next chapter and that’s that, like it had been a nightmare that fogged his life.
This film is all about those “lost years,” which are worth looking into as this period spoke more about Muhammad Ali than the entirety of his boxing career. Many athletes over the years have imitated his trash talk and showmanship, but Muhammad Ali had substance beyond his talent and bravado as a professional athlete.
The Greatest (1977)
It’s interesting to see a documentary on someone produced during the height of his fame. There’s not as much hindsight—similar to AKA Cassius Clay—so opinions on the man may be less grounded and more built on hype. However, this one is even more unusual as it’s a documentary/biopic hybrid starring the man himself.
He acted out major events in his life from his 1960 Olympic win to the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. Most other athletes who ever have the gall of attempting something similar would either put people to sleep or induce waves of cringe. Only Muhammad Ali had the prerequisite charm to make something like this watchable and genuinely entertaining.
When We Were Kings (1996)
Perhaps the most famous one in the list, this film deserved its Oscar. This was the first thing I watched after hearing of Muhammad Ali’s passing as it’s the best and most memorable film on this list. The 22 years it took to get this film released must have been difficult, but they were absolutely worth it.
While it mostly focused on the Rumble in the Jungle, it showed just about everything the man was about—his prodigious boxing talent, his undeniable charisma, his attitude outside the ring, and the interesting cast of characters in his entourage. This documentary made me a fan of Muhammad Ali, and it may do so for you as well.
Facing Ali (2009)
This film features Muhammad Ali from a different perspective—that of his opponents. Much can be learned about a person by facing him in combat—speaking from first-hand experience—and these men who had boxed him all those years ago had their own stories about him and how their fights with him affected their own lives.
As Ken Norton (who broke Ali’s jaw in their 1973 fight) said poignantly in this film, “To be in the same ring with this man called Muhammad was to me an honor, a life saver, career saver, and I can’t thank him enough for giving me the chance.”
I Am Ali (2014)
If you want to know more about Ali the human being, then this film gets fairly close to showing how he was as a person, especially back when he was still able-bodied. In between interviews with various people who were dear to Muhammad Ali are playbacks of his audio diaries. The structuring of the film itself may not be that solid, but the content is indeed worth sticking around for. It’s intimate and personal, giving a look at Muhammad Ali as a son, brother, husband, and father.
Ali: The Mission (2013)
This is an ESPN 30 for 30 short film on Muhammad Ali’s humanitarian efforts in his later years. He always expressed great interest in being a philanthropist after his boxing career, but his condition impeded much of that desire. Despite that, he still did what he could and used his fame to contribute.
While When We Were Kings can make you a fan of him as an athlete and celebrity, this can definitely make you an admirer of him as a human being.
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