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HBO’s ‘What’s My Name’ expertly tells story of Muhammad Ali as fighter, thinker

Muhammad Ali in Paris in 1976. | AFP/Getty Images

“I said to my mama, ‘Tarzan is the king of the jungle in Africa, he was white. Angel food cake is the white cake, and the devil’s food cake was the chocolate cake. The ugly duckling was a black duck, and the black cat was bad luck, and if I threaten you, I’m going to BLACKmail you. Mama, why don’t they call it whitemail?” – Muhammad Ali in “What’s My Name?”

He was the greatest of ALL TIME.

The most famous.

The most controversial.

The most beloved.

The most despised.

The most memorable boxer the world has ever known.

He was known for his rhyming doggerel — “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, the hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see” — but the real poetry was created inside the ring, for when Muhammad Ali was in his prime, he was the best heavyweight in the history of boxing.

Through the use of archival footage and interviews (no sports figure of the 1960s and 1970s appeared on more talk shows and was filmed more frequently than Ali), the narrator of Antoine Fuqua’s brilliant two-part HBO documentary “What’s My Name” is Muhammad Ali himself. He’s our tour guide through his life and times.

It’s all here. The 18-year-old Cassius Clay wins the gold in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, turns pro and starts racking up victories, wins the heavyweight title at the age of 22 with a TKO of Sonny Liston, converts to Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali, refuses to be drafted into the military …

Muhammad Ali, seen here in 1965 after dropping Sonny Liston, is mentioned in FBI files concerning his connection to the Nation of Islam and his opposition to the military draft.
In this May 25, 1965 file photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shortly after dropping Liston less than two minutes into the first round of their heavyweight title fight, in Lewiston, Maine. | AP
AP

Well. You know the story. Ali’s life in and out of the ring was so rich with meaning and left such a footprint on the cultural landscape of not only the United States but the world, even a 165-minute documentary leaves us wanting more.

Director Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equalizer”) expertly weaves the tale of Ali’s career as a fighter and his emergence as a force for social awareness and change, a lightning rod for controversy and a figure so popular there were few places he could go to in the world where he wouldn’t be mobbed by fans and media.

“Most of my knowledge comes from traveling and talking to people,” says Ali, and the footage bears this out, as we see him working the crowds and enchanting fans and dignitaries alike from New York City to England to Africa.

Unlike a lot of documentaries about sports figures, “What’s My Name” eschews talking head interviews in favor of extended film footage of dozens of Ali’s fights, including “The Fight of the Century” in 1971, in which Joe Frazier handed Ali his first defeat after a grueling, punishing, brutal 15-round fight; the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, when Ali shocked the world by knocking out the seemingly invincible man-mountain George Foreman; his defeat of Leon Spinks in 1978 to claim the heavyweight title for a third time, and the 38-year-old Ali losing by TKO to Larry Holmes, his former sparring partner, who so idolized Ali it was Holmes, not Ali, who wept after the fight.

As much as I loved revisiting the footage of so many classic fights, my favorite sequences are excerpts from press conferences and TV talk shows, with Ali verbally sparring with the likes of Howard Cosell and Dick Cavett, and the home movie-style footage of Ali at his training compound in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, where Ali talks about the benefits of breathing fresh air, drinking clean water and eating vegetables grown just down the road, as he trains by chopping down trees on his property.

(The soundtrack is perfect, with funky tunes such as CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” James Brown’s “The Big Payback” and Billy Preston’s “Space Race” accompanying montages.)

In this Aug. 7, 1972, file photo, Muhammad Ali jokes with television sports commentator Howard Cosell before the start of the Olympic boxing trials, in West Point, New York. | AP
In this Aug. 7, 1972, file photo, Muhammad Ali jokes with television sports commentator Howard Cosell before the start of the Olympic boxing trials, in West Point, New York. | AP

And course we hear from Ali about his refusal to join the military and go to Vietnam and his comments on racial inequality, as we see him interacting with everyone from Malcolm X to Ronald Reagan.

“What’s My Name” also provides glimpses into Ali’s occasional tendency to go too far, as when he constantly compared Joe Frazier to a “gorilla,” even having a sparring partner enter the ring while wearing a gorilla mask as Ali introduces the fighter as Frazier.

Even though we know Ali will be hit hard by Parkinson’s Disease and will cope with it for more than three decades, it’s still stunning and heartbreaking to see him experiencing the early effects even before he retired from boxing, and see behind-the-scenes footage of an interview with CBS’ Ed Bradley in which Ali gets up from his seat, has Bradley accompany him to another room and explain he’s having difficulty speaking and he doesn’t want the world to see him like this.

The greatness of “What’s My Name” is that if you’re young and you know very little of Muhammad Ali, this would be the perfect place to start learning about him — but if you remember Ali in his prime and you’re well-versed in his history, it’s STILL a must-see television event.

‘What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali’

HBO Sports presents a documentary directed by Antoine Fuqua. Running time: 165 minutes. Premieres at 7 p.m. Tuesday on HBO and available then on HBO GO, HBO NOW and HBO on Demand.