‘I Am Ali’: The champ’s voice from the past

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Without Muhammad Ali, Sylvester Stallone probably never writes “Rocky,” never creates Apollo Creed.

Without Muhammad Ali, George Foreman might never have made the transition from brooding, scowling knockout artist to amiable TV pitchman and ordained minister.

Without Muhammad Ali, who knows if showmen from Joe Namath to Reggie Jackson to Sugar Ray Leonard to pro wrestlers to any number of NFL wide receivers and NBA point guards would have been inspired to put all that frosting on the cake when they were center stage.

Without Muhammad Ali, the world would have been a less colorful, less controversial, less exhilarating, less wonderful place.

Ali is still with us, of course, but the 72-year-old who is still considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, the man crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC, has Parkinson’s and is out of the public eye. (Ali made an appearance with the Olympic flag at the opening ceremonies in London in 2012.)

We don’t see the present-day Ali in Clare Lewins’ fascinating new documentary “I Am Ali,” but we hear from some of his grown children, an ex-wife and members of his inner circle — and we hear Ali’s personal “audio journals,” i.e., recordings of phone calls he made to his kids when they were little and Daddy was on the road, training for a fight or fighting for a cause. And of course there’s plenty of footage of Ali in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was arguably the most famous human being on the planet and he was mobbed like a rock star whether he was in New York City, London or Zimbabwe.

Check that. Most rock stars never experienced the level of adulation accorded Muhammad Ali.

Much of this territory has of course been covered before, in previous documentaries, countless TV specials and any number of books. Still, the Ali of old is as entertaining as ever, e.g., climbing into the ring in London for his fight against the beloved Brit Henry Cooper while wearing a crown because “England has a queen but they don’t have a king.”

“I Am Ali” covers all the touchstones in Ali’s career. His rise to the top as Cassius Clay; joining the Nation of Islam; refusing to fight in the Vietnam War and being stripped of his title and banned from boxing for four years; the brutal fights with Joe Frazier; the stunning upset of George Foreman; the ill-fated comebacks well past the point when he shouldn’t have been fighting.

Lewins drops in the audio recordings here and there, with Ali coaxing compliments from his young daughters, reminding them of the importance of doing well in school, asking them what they’d like to be when they grow up. Cut to interviews with his grown children, who speak lovingly of their father.

“I Am Ali” lays it on a little thick at times. A story about Ali bonding with boy who has terminal cancer, while touching, has us wondering if Ali will be nominated for sainthood by the filmmaker. But to Lewins’ credit, she at least briefly acknowledges Ali’s failings as a husband and she touches on his sometimes-cruel showmanship, particularly regarding the late Joe Frazier, whom Ali mocked as a “gorilla.” (Frazier’s son says Ali later felt bad about his treatment of Joe, and the two bonded before Frazier passed away.)

George Foreman tells us losing to Ali was the best thing that ever happened to him. Without that loss, says Foreman, he never would have learned to be humble. He never would have found God. He never would have changed.

Such is the remarkable reach of Ali that even when he destroys you in the ring, you thank him for the beating. “I Am Ali” serves as further testimony Ali wasn’t simply a great boxer, he was a great man who happened to be a great boxer as well.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Focus World presents a documentary directed by Clare Lewins. Running time: 111 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Chatham 14 and on demand.

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