The hero falling is one of the harder sites to see. Moreover, the star whom we remembered as great, now a shell of that figure. It is sad. Certainly none of us have a right to tell someone what to do, but we all have the right to shake our heads when he suffers the consequences. Really, it is hard to watch the Muhammad Ali who Albert Maysles documents in his entry into ESPN’s 30 for 30 set, Muhammad and Larry without thinking about the beloved man as he is now. Fortunately Ali is still sharp and vibrant, but his body has rebelled against him – and it would be dishonest to say that it doesn’t take away from what he should be. Maysles’ film documents the fateful fight between Ali, coaxed out of retirement, and his former sparring partner and champion at the time Larry Holmes. If the Oscar winning When We Were Kings successfully captures the feel of the “Rumble in the Jungle”, this smaller sized feature effectively captures the elegaic tone of Ali’s last shot.
It is in no way a spoiler to say that Holmes crushed Ali on that night in 1980. You can look it up, and Maysles starts his film with some of the disturbing highlights – the entire story has to be seen in context to these moments. He intercuts it with footage that he has had for years (because of a documentary that he was to film that never got released) of behind the scenes in the training camp. In the early moments, we get to visit Ali’s camp. As is well known (and if you don’t the talking heads will tell you), Ali’s camps were always a cacaphony. Unlike the secretive, manicured press management of today’s athletes, Ali ran his camps wide open. It felt like anyone was invited and could get an audience with the champ. Ali is forever on stage – no athlete since has been so magnetic. But even in the early scenes, we can hear words slurring. The charm is there – the old warhorse talking about riding again – but you see the slowing down, although it is subtle enough to not see – if you didn’t want to.
In contrast to the hoopla of the Ali camp, we see the much smaller scaled side of Larry Holmes. Holmes had the bad luck of being the guy between Ali and Tyson. He did not have the outsized personality of either and his skillset was more workmanlike than shock and awe. Like almost every Ali opponent, Holmes was the straight man. We see old interviews of Larry, as well as new footage and interviews. The Holmes Maysles finds is a man at peace. He has hit bitterness – like all fighters, he thinks he is the best who ever lived – but he laughs a lot, and is still close to his Easton, PA roots. He had a thankless role tonight – as the guy to cut the hero down to size – but what can you do? Larry seems to be handling it about as well as one can ask.
The movie is at its best tracking the camps. You get a sense of the personalities involved – although I’m not sure even less familiar viewers will learn about the Ali persona. He is slower. He does the magic tricks for the children, he is still funny (although the movie’s one weakness is that we never get past the Ali persona – but it might be impossible to find time to see what the private man is thinking in his case). But the sparring sessions – he can’t move – he’s being teed off on. Even those who don’t know boxing could sense something was wrong – and Maysles does a nice job showing these things without laying on the schmaltz. It’s a sad story – and some of Ali’s fans feared for him and the circumstance – but Maysles is not going for anger here, just sadness. Even at the end Larry Holmes wants to spare him, but he would not go down, and the referee was not going to take Ali’s chance at history away – and that’s too bad.