Sweaty Men Endeavors

The sports blog with the slightly gay name

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Still the King, still The Greatest

So did you catch "Ali Rap" on ESPN Saturday night after The Troy Smith Show the Heisman Trophy Presentation?

Not that you could ever forget what an awesome athlete Muhammad Ali was, how important a social figure he had become, and what a force of nature he was when a microphone was placed in front of him. I can only imagine that it was a pleasure for sportswriters and broadcasters to just press "record" and let the river that was Ali's mouth flow.

But it was still fun to be reminded of just how much influence Ali has exerted over the past two or three generations.

I know the point of the show was to assert that Ali may have invented an art form that thrives today. I can't speak with any authority on that subject. You're looking at a guy who thinks rap began and ended with Run DMC in the 1980s. So I'll leave that sort of argument to the Chuck Klostermans of the world.

One thing that struck me as I watched "Ali Rap" (along with "Ali's Dozen," which played afterwards) was how much fun Muhammad Ali had being who he was. He wasn't just boastful, loaded with ego and hubris, like many of today's athletes. But he was creative. Did he come up with those rhymes and monologues on the spot, barking the words out as fast as his synapses would fire? Maybe he thought of some of that stuff beforehand. But it sure didn't sound practiced. It couldn't have been.

Even better, Ali was funny. How great was it when Ali was asked about Sonny Liston, and the first thing he said was, "Ain't he ugly?" Of course, it didn't stop there...

Watching such footage, I couldn't help but think of Michael Mann's 2001 film, Ali, and how this was a part of the man he seemed to get wrong. There was so much Mann got right in that movie; he obviously was meticulous with his research and filmmaking craft. (And I love Mann's work. You put Heat in your DVD player, and I'm staying over to watch the whole thing. Collateral was good, too. And Miami Vice was terribly underrated. Pardon the digression...)

But somewhere along the line, it felt like he missed Ali's essence. I think Michael Wilbon brought up this point on PTI back when the movie came out, so I can't entirely claim an original thought here. But Will Smith's portrayal of Ali seemed so burdened. He never seemed to enjoy the whole experience, which runs completely counter to the man I watched in old footage on TV and in documentaries such as When We Were Kings.

And maybe that was a point Mann and Smith were trying to make: that the weight of being Muhammad Ali was more of a load than any man could really shoulder. Or maybe the burden that Smith felt in playing Ali was projected onto his performance. Or Mann had too much difficulty trying to fit the highlight's of the man's life into a two-and-a-half-hour film. Who really knows? Maybe Mann or Smith will talk about in greater detail someday - if the movie isn't forgotten, which I fear it's well in danger of becoming only five years later.

Unfortunately, that's the hurdle that many sports movies (especially biopics like Ali) have to overcome. The re-enactment - even if it's re-created to the smallest detail - can't possibly match the images already imprinted onto our minds, and the memories that we cherish. It's impossible to sit back and get lost in a film version of Muhammad Ali, because the real thing was just too good.

Thankfully, we have programs like "Ali Rap" (and the accompanying book) to remind us. And it's on occasions such as this that ESPN shows what it's truly capable of as a sports and entertainment network. (Hey, if we rip 'em when they're bad, we have to give 'em credit when they're good, right?)

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1 Comments:

  • At December 14, 2006 9:32 AM, Anonymous e.j.smith said…

    Ian:

    Excellent article. I caught the aforementioned program which launched a series of discussions about the Ali legacy and the current state of professional boxing. While the latter is fodder for a slew of debates about the "when" and the "why," it is true that we are probably a decade removed from the last great era in professional boxing, i.e., the days of Tyson, Hearns, Leonard, etc.

    As for Ali, not only was he a great athlete but also the personification of true class as an individual, much as Tiger Woods is to golf and Michael Jordan was to basketball. When is the last time that professional boxing has produced a personality that transcended the sport? You can't even say that about Tyson who was still a circus act despite his incredible gifts as a boxer during the height of his career. The sport has become so marginalized and arguably corrupt that the WWE can claim more legitimacy.

    The world has changed so much since Ali last fought. That is probably the main point.

     

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