Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Fighting a Legend: Muhammad and Larry
There’s no glory in following a legend. Larry Holmes realized that even before he stepped into the ring with Muhammad Ali in 1980 for their notorious title fight. Holmes was 35-0 at the time with 26 knockouts. He had defended his heavyweight crown a remarkable seven times in two years. But when people looked at Holmes they didn’t see a great champion. They saw someone who wasn’t Ali. This is hardly a rare phenomenon in sports, but it’s especially notable here for two reasons: 1) Ali was a greater legend than most – an adored and charismatic figure who was as significant culturally as athletically; 2) Holmes wasn’t just misfortunate enough to come into his prime after Ali’s reign; he also had the thankless task of beating the over-the-hill but still beloved fighter with his fists in the most gruesome loss of Ali’s career. To Ali’s fans, this was adding injury to insult. Holmes, just doing his job, could have more effectively won the love of the people by getting arrested for dog fighting.
This famous and unfortunate clash of boxing titans is the subject of Muhammad and Larry, the fourth and thus far best documentary to be released as part of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series. It’s directed by Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan and it utilizes a great deal of never-before-seen footage that Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) shot for a planned 1980 documentary that was never released. Given the public fascination with Ali, it’s staggering to think that it’s taken almost 30 years for the footage to be unearthed. Then again, it isn’t a surprise at all. Maysles’ 1980 footage is a record of devastation. As heartbreaking as it is to see Ali now, crippled by Parkinson’s syndrome, this is almost worse. In 1980, Ali was 38 and hadn’t fought in two years. Just two months before the fight, he was overweight – ultimately slimming down by misusing thyroid medication as diet pills. Beyond all of that, it’s obvious now, if somehow it wasn’t then, that a career of taking blows to the head had taken a toll on Ali’s speech and motor skills. The beloved “Greatest of All Time,” whose most celebrated fights were the ones in which none of the experts gave him a chance, was brain damaged and about to step into the ring with Holmes, who at 29 wasn’t a dope who could be roped into a mistake – not that Ali was in any condition to capitalize on a mistake if Holmes made one.
For sports fans these are painful images, all too easily avoided, which is precisely why sports fans should confront this documentary. Interestingly, Muhammad and Larry comes along just after the publication of “Offensive Play,” an examination of the debilitating long-term effects of repeated blows to the head that are inherent to football, by Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker. Gladwell’s article hardly mentions boxing, but that’s not because there isn’t evidence that the sport can lead to premature dementia; presumably it’s because the dangers of boxing are old news. The tragedy of Ali’s disintegration, even before his Parkinson’s syndrome diagnosis, is case in point. Yet somehow mixed martial arts, a sport that is in many ways more violent than boxing (though perhaps not specifically to the head), is increasing in popularity. And football, of course, is America’s game. Watching Muhammad and Larry it’s baffling that the Ali-Holmes fight was allowed to happen, until one remembers the underlying motive: money. It wasn’t just Ali who risked his life for a promised $8 million payday. Promoters benefitted. Las Vegas benefitted. Sports entertainment as a whole benefitted. Ali’s well-being was sacrificed in the name of fortune. (One wonders: How many NFL players would need to suffer premature dementia for football to dial back its violence?)
Muhammad and Larry isn’t only about the tragedy of Ali, however. Implicitly the documentary suggests that there was another victim on October 2, 1980, and he was the guy administering the beating: Larry Holmes. Holmes, who for years had been one of Ali’s sparring partners, had no desire to punish Ali, and Holmes so respected Ali that he went into the match believing that maybe, just maybe, Ali might still be dangerous. If a washed up Ali had managed to give Holmes a fight, boxing historians would have held it against the reigning champion. As it was, Holmes, sensing Ali’s weakened state, seemed to try to coax the legend into submission, unable to go in for the killer blow against a defenseless opponent. The match was so lopsided that during multiple rounds Ali didn’t land a single punch. Just like he had against George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali took a beating against the ropes, only this time he wasn’t deflecting the blows with his arms. Holmes kept pounding Ali, thus proving his mettle as a boxer while becoming the villain he never wanted to be.
The Ali-Holmes footage is difficult to watch, but Muhammad and Larry manages to be as sweet as it is upsetting. Holmes, whose younger-years lisp is similar to that of Mike Tyson, is soft-spoken, tender and, for a boxer, rather humble. One shot from 1980 finds him lying on the trainer's table and reaching back to touch his baby’s foot and stroke his wife’s cheek as if oblivious to the world around him. Ali, meanwhile, is ever the showman; at one point we’re treated to a terrific montage of Ali performing magic tricks. Both men knew they were on camera, of course, and Ali was almost always “on,” but it’s hard to overlook how relaxed both men seem to be. In that respect, Muhammad and Larry is a snapshot of a lost era in sports and journalism: a time when athletes weren’t as rehearsed, guarded and skeptical as they are today (with good reason). In the archival footage, both Holmes and Ali welcome the camera into their lives like school children inviting a new kid into their playground games. The intimacy is striking.
It would be tempting to mention that Muhammad and Larry doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of that other tremendous Ali documentary, Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, but to do so would be to treat this film like boxing historians treated Holmes. The truth is that for a documentary that must come in at under an hour Muhammad and Larry is impressively rich, complimenting its archival footage with some eloquent modern interviews with subjects ranging from Holmes to Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s fight doctor of 15 years who quit because Ali wouldn’t. If Maysles and Kaplan had 30 more minutes, they would have been obligated to include one more unfortunate detail: Holmes, the man who exposed an over-the-hill Ali, also didn’t know when to quit, making several comebacks in his 40s before fighting his last bout at the age of 52. The power of the payday is extraordinary. Muhammad and Larry isn’t hell-bent in assigning blame for these chronic sports tragedies, which is fortunate because there would be a lot of it to go around. But it’s clear that someone needs to save these men when they get to the point that they can no longer save themselves. In the fight between Holmes and Ali, everyone lost, except those who profited at their expense.
Muhammad and Larry premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.