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.


Chase said...

I'm really excited about this one. Boxing documentaries seem to have a great track record in general.

Daniel said...

Nice review. I've just come into the second half hour of this on ESPN and it's exactly as you describe - sad, yet fascinating.

Reminds me of Tyson's last fight - hard to watch and ultimately somewhat depressing.

Unknown said...

the doc was well done, kudos to espn for not going mainstream with the stories, I am enjoying these little trips to some of sports forgotten memories if you will.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments. Hope more people write in with their thoughts on these docs as they catch them.

A few thoughts ...

Chase: I'm not a boxing fan in general, but it sure makes for great cinema. Drama. Tragedy. Brutality. Get two fighters with even a little personality and a boxing doc has everything Hollywood tries to manufacture.

Daniel: This will sound like hyperbole, but I can think of few sports images more heartbreaking than Tyson's interview after his last fight when he admitted he did it for the money. It was so painfully honest. I feel conflicted about feeling sorry for Tyson, who was a monster in many ways. But people sure victimized him, too.

Dustin: Agreed. I do wonder: If "30 for 30" didn't come along, would Maysles have ever had a venue for all this footage?

To all: I mentioned in my review that the timing of this film is interesting because of Gladwell's piece for The New Yorker, but it's interesting in other ways too. This week a World Series begins that stars Alex Rodriguez, who could probably go 3-for-4 with six homers in a four-game Yankees sweep and yet will never be as beloved as Derek Jeter. Meantime, Brett Favre makes his return to Green Bay on Sunday. That case is special, because by going to the Vikings, among other things, Favre has managed to turn a lot of the Green Bay crowd against him. Nevertheless, Aaron Rodgers could probably win three Super Bowls to Favre's one and I doubt the people of Wisconsin could ever love him as much as they loved Favre. Most of it has to do with timing and charisma. It must feel like a prison sentence to follow a Jeter or a Favre. But that's nothing compared to following Ali.

Unknown said...

the other interesting thing is that boxing has not learned any lessons,and remains about the money. Look at delahoya and pac-man this past year, it was not even a fight, it was a beating, im curious to see when mayweathers miracles run out. just a thought

Troy Olson said...

Wow, that was easily the best of the series so far, as the emotions in it far surpassed the typical themes you get from sports docs.

I got a little choked up just watching Holmes punching Ali at the end of that match and then tearing up in the post-match interview. It's a shame that people would view this man as bad person for what happened in the ring.

Anyways, this is a stellar example of what can be done with the medium and, as you said, the fact that this footage has never been seen is amazing, which I guess supports the theory that we want to protect our idols and not see them looking bad, although, I'm not quite sure that is the case as much in modern-day sports journalism. Your examples of Jeter/Arod and Favre do open that up for debate, but former paragons of virtue like Mark McGwire or Lance Armstrong prove that if the dirt is there, you will be buried under it. That kind of scrutiny simply didn't exist in Ali's day.

Okay, I rambled there at the end...

Jason Bellamy said...

Dustin: Agreed. As that Gladwell story about football reminds, virtually any pro sport abuses its athletes (which isn't to imply that the athletes aren't treated very well in some ways). But boxing is one of the most corrupt sports because what sells is spectacle, not boxing. If people (fans) will pay to watch Tyson way past his prime, then promoters want Tyson to fight, even if the fight is going to be a joke. Time and again this leads to a situation where a washed up fighter is faced with this scenario: Turn down the fight, or -- after a career of taking punches -- take a few punches more for a lot more money.

Troy: Good points. There's no question that athletes can destroy their goodwill with fans. (Favre is sure trying in the present.) Then again, some guys remain remarkably bulletproof (Charles Barkley comes to mind). Ali was controversial, but he won one audience with those controversies while losing another. Athletes caught using PEDs don't win any fans with that kind of controversy; they just lose them.

Times are different, sure. But much remains the same.

nightfly said...

You ask how many cases of premature dementia need occur before the NFL dials back the violence. Sadly, there's a definite number, and we are on the small side of it yet. So many players wind up in permanent physical pain, if not actively disabled; to this we now begin to see exactly what you mention, where players leave while still able to perform well (Steve Young and Tiki Barber as recent examples), in order to avoid winding up like Hall of Famer Mike Webster.

It was bad enough in the past when players were often physically crippled, but their minds remained sharp. (I still hear radio ads for, and by, Y.A. Tittle for his insurance company. The guy has all his marbles yet.) Now the players are all so explosively fast and strong that even normal play can disable them. I still remember Ki-Jana Carter falling to the turf, ripping apart his own knee simply by planting and cutting, untouched by any defender. Even discounting that as a freak, the routine of play is dangerous enough, and of course celebrated on highlight packages - how many Top Plays consist of an unsuspecting ball carrier "blown up" on a return or something? I've read somewhere that being hit full-speed like that in the open field is like being in a car crash at 30 MPH...

It's enough to make me feel guilty for enjoying football.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sadly, there's a definite number, and we are on the small side of it yet ... It's enough to make me feel guilty for enjoying football.

Nightfly: Thanks for the comment. I know what you mean. Ignoring the other injuries -- walking with a limp the rest of your life is quite different than living with dementia -- the more we learn about brain injuries the more I cringe at even the smallest hits.

A few weeks ago I was shocked at how people responded to Tim Tebow playing against LSU a week after his concussion. Several ESPN personalities said it was a credit to Tebow's toughness and courage. Huh? It's a brain injury. Either his concussion symptoms are gone and he is medically fit to play (thus requiring no more toughness or courage than normal), or his concussion symptoms are there and he shouldn't be on the field. It's one or the other. Playing with a hurt ankle shows toughness and courage. Playing with an injured brain shows stupidity and a lack of perspective by those who are supposed to be looking out for the injured player.

Lest I be misunderstood: I'm not criticizing Tebow (or Florida) for playing one week after his concussion. If the doctors said he was OK to play, then he was OK. But the reactions to Tebow playing revealed that some people still don't see the difference between an injured knee and an injured brain.

Anonymous said...

Good review, and I agree this is one of the better ESPN segments so far.

One thing that struck me is the eventual acknowledgement in this segment of Ali's diminished capacity at that time(reflexes, speaking) well after the viewer already could see it. Having lived through that era, I guess I was unaware how big a toll Ali's career had already taken on him; of course the Parkinson's diagnosis was still well off. It made me think of Reagan, and the obvious signs at the end of his presidency that something was up.

For some reason I also thought of Evel Kneivel, another icon from the 70's, unable to step away from the spotlight despite the wears and tears on body. Anyway; this is a very good series ESPN is running.

makavelli said...

i just watched this movie and thought it was great and although i'm the biggest ali fan this side of the mississippi i think that larry holmes deserved alot better while he was the heavyweight champion he was in great physical shape and just like ali could take it as well as dish it out. one thing thats sad to think about is if ali didnt take those thyroid pills how far he could have gone could he have won even if he couldn't win what a show he could have put on. when i was little i grew up thinking doctors were like the perfect human beings and ofcourse thats not true but it took me years of adulthood to realize that and to take them off the high pedestal i put them on, and today i have learned to do my own research before taken pills cuz a lot of doctors for some reason love to prescribe pills way to quick maybe its the business side of it but it stinks, i've heard about the thyroid pills on other ali documentaries and have always wonder what could have been