What It's Like To Be 'Facing Ali'
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
The Greatest, The Champ, The Louisville Lip - no matter what you call him, Muhammad Ali is one of the greatest boxers of all time. He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee through the '60s and '70s, becoming the first boxer to win three heavyweight world championships.
Ali used his unorthodox style of fighting to go toe-to-toe with the likes of George Foreman, and Sonny Liston, and Joe Frazier and the list goes on. He's known for his swift blows and even swifter trash-talking. But controversy aside, many of Ali's opponents have one thing in common, they respected him.
(Soundbite of archival footage)
Mr. GEORGE FOREMAN (Boxer): Probably the best punch of the whole fight was never landed. Muhammad Ali, as I was going down - stumbling and trying to hold myself - he saw me stumbling. Ordinarily, you finish your fighter off. I would have. He got ready to throw the right hand and he didn't do it. That's what made him, in my mind, the greatest fighter I ever fought.
ROBERTS: That's George Foreman talking about The Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974 from the documentary, "Facing Ali." The documentary is based on the book, "Facing Ali," 15 fighters, 15 stories by Globe and Mail journalist, Stephen Brunt.
An award-winning filmmaker, Pete McCormack, made a new film telling the untold stories of 10 of the boxers featured in the book. The film recently won the audience choice award for best documentary at the Vancouver International Film Festival and was short-listed for nomination for best documentary at this year's Academy Awards.
Pete McCormack will join us in a moment, and we turn to you. What does Muhammad Ali mean to you? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. You can email at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can always get in to the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now from the CBC Studios in Vancouver is Pete McCormack. He directed the new documentary, "Facing Ali."
Welcome to the program.
Mr. PETE McCORMACK (Director, "Facing Ali"): It's a pleasure to be here. I love NPR, by the way.
ROBERTS: Thank you. I'm a CBC fan.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBERTS: So were you a Muhammad Ali fan growing up?
Mr. McCORMACK: Very, very big fan of Muhammad Ali growing up, yeah. In fact, that whole era - I'm not a boxer. I have a glass jaw, so one punch and I'm out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McCORMACK: But I loved Muhammad Ali and I actually love that whole era of boxing. I knew all the guys that - I knew the guys that I wanted to interview for the film and I knew about them when I was a kid - intensely. I was relatively intense as a kid, as I am now. But - so you had that whole golden - called the golden era of heavyweight boxing. I was sort of entranced by it.
ROBERTS: So it wasn't that you read the book and had to tell these guys stories. You sort of knew their stories already?
Mr. McCORMACK: I - well, I researched intensely anyway, but I did, yeah. I knew them. I knew that era very well and I knew Ali very well. And I had, you know, read about him in his biographies in different places, for sure, along the way.
ROBERTS: What is it about that era or those guys that captivated you?
Mr. McCORMACK: Well, I think Ali is definitely the centerpiece of that. I mean, he came out of nowhere at a time that was - it was a perfect storm. I mean, his charisma and his outspoken ways and then getting politicized by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, gave him - his trash-talk that he came out with instinctively was then politicized. And intelligently, you know, Malcolm X was a very clear and great speaker that I think that really rubbed off from Muhammad Ali. And Cassius Clay at the time, and - by the way, that sort of was now that the anti has risen, you know?
And then with Vietnam when he didn't go in '66, which was quite early, it was in February of '66, I think that pushed it even farther. And then there was just a lot of great heavyweights at that time. Plus, Ali was very poetic in his style as well. It was unorthodox. It depended on his lightning speed in his training, which, of course, caused him problems later on down his career, fighting too long. But he was so unorthodox in that way as well, so - and the civil rights movement, at the same time -it was just a time when - like The Beatles came together. It was kind of like that, you know, to me.
ROBERTS: Right. Well, you know, I mean, it's impossible to parse the boxing from the moment in history. But, you know, his boxing skills, his incredible ability to take all those punches, to withstand a rope-a-dope, all of that, you know, made him this extraordinary athlete that changed the sport. But do you think that that - how does that match up with his role in American history and in this enormous time of change and expectation?
Mr. McCORMACK: Well, I - you know, I don't think Ali was a natural leader, politically, in any way. He even said this: I don't want to be a leader. I just wanted to be free, you know? And so that was his instinct. I think that was his natural instinct, to be able to be himself. And I think - but nonetheless, he was hitting in certain events, and at the peak of them - saying no to Vietnam, for instance -for a multitude of reasons, that came about, actually, much more complex than how it's sometimes portrayed.
And so I think it's an interesting balance, it's the balance of those two things, the tension between the two that makes him - his mark so profound. His boxing skills were, you know, he's arguably the greatest fighter of all time, heavyweight, when he was in his prime, for sure. I mean, he really was something else before he was banned from boxing in 1967.
ROBERTS: And that was for draft-dodging.
Mr. McCORMACK: That's right. Yeah, that was for saying no to the - he didn't draft dodge. He said no to the draft in the sense that he didn't leave the country. But he couldn't. They took his passport. So he - for just refusing to go - to be inducted. So yeah, that was when really - and you know what's interesting, Rebecca, is the press against him at that moment - people often talk about how he spoke against certain people. The press against him in that - '67, '68 was so vitriolic. It's unbelievable. I can't remember the name of the guy from the New York Times but he called him a deviant and degraded. And the Ring magazine actually in '66 didn't give him - he hadn't even been banned from boxing yet.
Ring magazine hardly, you know, it's not the highest - it's not the Atlantic Monthly, you know? But he didn't - they actually didn't give him the Fighter of the Year Award because they said he was a terrible, like - and worse words than that - influence on the youth of America. So he was taking a beating even - from all sides.
ROBERTS: When you went and talked to these boxers who had faced him in the ring, what did you learn about Ali that was different from, say, talking to his wives or Nation of Islam people? I mean, what do you learn from people who've faced his punches?
Mr. McCORMACK: Well, I think, you know, one of the exciting things about the film was to let the boxers tell their story. We didn't use a narrator, which was, you know, a challenging idea at first because - are you sure 10 boxers can tell this story without a narrator and can you get what you need? And that was really, really important to me. And I knew some of the boxers were more articulate and so on, and how I could balance and how we could try to do that.
But I think what we got was a real understanding of - they really understood what - how Ali's presence lifted their presence on the world stage. It was really, really clear, you know? And they understood that and they were - and many of them were grateful for that. They really...
ROBERTS: There's a beautiful moment when Leon Spinks says fighting Ali gave him a second chance at life.
Mr. McCORMACK: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That was - I think that was Ken Norton, but yeah, it was - and Leon said the same kind of thing though, several of them did. And that's a wonderful moment. He was going to go home with his dad - go home to his dad, his dad wouldn't let him come home, he said be a man. He kept fighting. He was looking after a year-and-a-half-old son on his own. And that's when he said, yeah, Ali gave him a second chance at life, gave him a chance to buy clothes and food.
And in fact, in your previous - what you were talking about before with the economy, I mean, people often said to me, should we ban boxing? I said, if you want to ban boxing, ban poverty, because across the board of the fighters, they came out of - they were either racially disenfranchised or economically disenfranchised, or both.
And boxing, to me, when I watch this - when I learn about these fighters - is actually an intelligent choice. In other words, when Leon Spinks said, you know, I've been getting beaten up and I didn't like my mom getting - having to chase boys out that were younger than me with a two-by-four, and then I took up boxing and everything changed, you know?
ROBERTS: Yeah. And Henry Coopers said, you know, upper class kids don't become boxers.
Mr. McCORMACK: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. There's no - that's a really wonderful thing back to what you're talking about, the labor and class and so on. You'll see that the boxers in the '30s and '40s were Jewish, were Italian, were Irish. There still are, of course. I don't know of that many Jewish fighters anymore, but they got to a place economically - and then of course those days - by the way, those aren't white people in those days. They're white now but they weren't white then. It's a very - we forget that.
They were Italian, they were Irish, and they were Jewish. Now they've reached a place economically on average where they just don't produce fighters. And now it's mostly Hispanic and, you know, Mexican - sorry, Puerto Rican and Mexican that end up fighting, and of course blacks continue to fight. So it's really an interesting economic - you can really get an overview of what's going on, I think, with it. UFC is a different kettle of fish. They seem to be a different demographic.
ROBERTS: Ultimate fighting. Yeah.
Mr. McCORMACK: The ultimate fighting. For some reason that's a different demographic. I guess it cost a lot of money to learn all the martial arts. But in boxing, it seems to me when I look at it, it's definitely coming out of those places where they've been economically or racially disenfranchised or both.
ROBERTS: My guest is Pete McCormack. He's a director of the documentary "Facing Ali." And we are inviting you to join us with your Muhammad Ali stories. What do you think was his most memorable fight? You can join us at 800-989-8255 or send us email: email@example.com. Let's hear from Bob in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bob, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BOB (Caller): Hey. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate it.
ROBERTS: Sure. You're...
ROBERTS: Yeah, we can hear you, Bob. What's your Muhammad Ali story?
BOB: I'm sorry? I didn't hear you.
ROBERTS: What's your Muhammad Ali story?
BOB: Oh, okay. Well (unintelligible) most memorable fight. Most memorable fight was the second Liston fight. But Muhammad Ali's story is the fact that, you know, when he refused the draft, he was already undefeated as a fighter and had, you know, showed great courage in facing anybody (unintelligible) he stood up against the draft.
And I was a teenage - I'm a, you know, young black man at the time, a teenager, just seeing him showing that kind of courage, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all this happening at the same time, just uplifted me as a human being and probably, you know, just changed my life, because it brought us as young black men from coming out of an era where we were kind of suppressed to an era to where we just had a lot of pride in ourselves.
ROBERTS: Bob, thanks so much for your call. Pete McCormack, he mentioned that second Sonny Liston fight. I imagine a bunch of people might mention that as the most memorable. What's your impression?
Mr. McCORMACK: Well, I mean, you know, what Bob said anyways is really interesting. I mean, Ali's first fight with Liston was perhaps more memorable; it was such an upset. The second fight was when Liston likely took a dive. You know, the first Frazier fight is huge; the fight, of course, the Rumble in the Jungle, George Foreman.
But what he said, what Bob said, is very interesting. People sometimes criticize - what did Ali do? He said I am the greatest, I'm the greatest - what did he do? Well, there's a great story in Harpers after that second fight - after the first fight, sorry, with Liston, where Ali would go back to his place where he was staying, and there were lots of kids in the neighborhood - this was in Miami - and it was a huge upset. And he'd show them films, and he'd say, who's the greatest of all time? And they'd all go out, Cassius Clay - because he wasn't Muhammad Ali yet, these kids.
And every once in awhile there would be a really smart - like a little girl was mentioned in the article and she'd say, who's the - I'm the pretty, who's the prettiest? And she'd say, I'm the prettiest, and they'd all laugh.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McCORMACK: And I think that's really important. And some of them say, who's the greatest of all time? And someone would go, Ray Charles.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McCORMACK: And I think it's really - and he would have to calm all the kids down and get them back doing it. And these kids with Ali would do this for an hour, an hour and a half, and they'd hear all the way down the blocks of the street. But the point of the matter is, to me, is when he said I am the greatest, in a place at 1963, '64, '65, in great racial turbulence in the country, in front of the entire world with no hesitation, I think it said you are the greatest, you can do what you want to do.
And anybody that denies that really doesn't understand human nature. It's just that we know that. We - if you see someone you love stand up for themselves, in your family, it's inspiring. Whether they're standing up for you or not, you feel by association that - and Ali was doing it in front of the entire world, and people really underestimate the power of that. And when that little girl says, who's the prettiest, who's the greatest of all time - I am - and they all laugh at her, I think that's the greatest - I was in tears reading the article in Harpers from '64, you know? So I think what Bob said is really, really important.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's hear from Bill in San Antonio. Bill, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BILL (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?
ROBERTS: Okay. How are you?
Mr. McCORMACK: Good.
BILL: Real good. Well, I remember the fight that Muhammad Ali had against Joe Frazier. And I think it was 1971...
Mr. McCORMACK: That's right, May of '71
BILL: Yeah. And my math teacher, I went to Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. And my match teacher, Mr. Smith, who was the only African-American teacher in the school - it was a Catholic school. And he bet his Porsche.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BILL: And I think that was the fight Muhammad Ali lost, is that right?
Mr. McCORMACK: That's right. That's correct.
Mr.: Did he lose his Porsche?
BILL: (Unintelligible) his Porsche, and I had to say prayers that day. It was algebra class. And he would - Mr. Smith would step outside of the classroom, and I said the Hail Mary, and then at the end, I said, St. Muhammad Ali, please pray for us. And I got thrown out of the classroom for three days.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBERTS: Bill, thank you so much for your call. Let's...
Mr. McCORMACK: That's a great story, Bill.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Doug in East Lansing, Michigan. Doug, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DOUG (Caller): Hey, thanks. Thanks for the chance to tell my story.
DOUG: I, you know, it's probably not one of the classic fights, but I recall the - it was one that Pete McCormack will probably know which one it was. It was one of the fights that Ali faced, I think, Henry Cooper. It was a 15-round battle. And he was exhausted at the end of this fight, barely able to continue standing. And it was the time when, you know, the fans were still allowed to kind of rush to the ring and touch him. And, you know, well, he had pretty physical security guys protecting him and they were very, very roughly pushing his fans away and shoving them away.
And Ali comes over and very gently takes the security guard's hand off the fan that was trying to reach him and lets the fan, you know, hug him and praise him and so on. How he was even able to stand at that point was beyond me. But when I saw that tenderness for the fans and how he was even gentle with the security guard in admonishing him, I tell you, tears came in my eyes. I just couldn't believe that he was made of that kind of stuff.
ROBERTS: Doug, thanks so much...
Mr. McCORMACK: Well, that's nice.
ROBERTS: ...for your call.
Mr. McCORMACK: That's nice.
ROBERTS: I think we have time for one last call. This is Toby in Durham, North Carolina. Toby, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
TOBY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say quickly that I got to meet Muhammad Ali in 2001 in a restaurant. I got to shake his hand. And even through his sickness, he was unsteady on his feet, there was no grip strength - and he was still incredibly formidable. I was shaking hands with a legend, and it was one of the highlights of my life.
ROBERTS: Toby, thank you so much for you call. Pete McCormack, have you met Muhammad Ali?
Mr. McCORMACK: Yeah. We got to meet him about - he came from - watched the film in Vancouver, actually, so it was a great, great moment, you know? It was very touching and we - and of course his condition, Parkinson's syndrome, is very, you know, it really imprisons his body. So to watch him watch the film was really touching with his - his wife was there and his sister-in-law were there. And I sat next to him, between he and his sister-in-law. And it was really a lovely moment. And...
ROBERTS: And what's next for the film?
Mr. McCORMACK: Well, we're waiting - February 2nd is when the Oscar - the nominations come out. So that would change things, I think, a little bit if we got nominated in the final five. And just - last night we won the critics award in Vancouver for BC films. That was nice. And it's just going as it goes, I think, and it's out on DVD now. And so we're really waiting for the Academy Award nominations, I think.
ROBERTS: The film is "Facing Ali." The director is Pete McCormack, who joined us from the CBC Studios in Vancouver. Thank you so much for being here.
Mr. McCORMACK: It was a real pleasure. Thank you.
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