The hook behind ESPN's 30 For 30 series — and, to be frank, the main reason we're covering it here — is that it presents compelling documentaries by name-brand directors that don't necessarily rely on a viewer's knowledge of, or even interest in, the sporting event that's being covered. I've been on board with the series since the beginning, and I found myself spellbound by the second episode, "The Band That Wouldn't Die", despite my minimal interest in football; Barry Levinson wisely focused on the way the departure of the Colts from Baltimore was a blow to the community, an event no less traumatic to the city than an ugly divorce would be to an individual. Handing over the reins to experienced filmmakers instead of sports videographers has given the network a chance to reach beyond its normal demographic confines and present something that makes a real argument in favor of the often-claimed universality of sports.
I'll be on board for the next two installments, both of which differ from the last three insofar as they're at least partial remakes for the directors. Next week's "Without Bias" is helmed by Kirk Fraser, and it's a reworking of his own documentary, Len Bias: The Legend You Know, The Story You Didn't; and this week, Albert Maysles — working with a young assistant named Bradley Kaplan — oversees "Muhammad And Larry". To call this episode a ringer would be putting it mildly; Maysles is half of the best documentary team in film history, and he's not only working with an unprecedented amount of archival footage, but it's footage that he and his brother David shot themselves 29 years ago. Their original film, Muhammad And Larry, was much shorter, and was never given a public screening, but the format of 30 For 30 gives Maysles a chance to expand on it and hammer home its essential tragedy.
There was already something like an aura of dread hanging over the 1980 championship bout between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes before it actually went down. Holmes had won the WBC title by a razor's-edge decision against hard-hitting Ken Norton, but he'd shored up his legitimacy in a series of solid defenses against the likes of Leon Spinks, Earnie Shavers and Tim Witherspoon. He wasn't expecting to have to face Muhammed Ali, coming off of a year-long retirement to seek an unprecedented fourth heavyweight championship. Ali was as much a hero to Holmes, his friend and former sparring partner, as he was to much of the rest of the country, and the idea of squaring off against him in a fight — at a time when no one believed that Ali, out of shape, damaged by years of injuries, medicated, and 38 years old, was anything like a serious contender. (Added poignancy comes from the fact that, unknown to anyone at the time, Ali was only four years from a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease.)
In the footage leading up to the fight, Ali sports a mustache, making him look like the Mirror Universe evil version of the boxer who, even today, is nearly universally beloved; and there's plenty of instances of his dark side creeping out. In a limo on the way to the fight, Maysles mentions to a joking, swaggering Ali that he spent the previous day with "your friend", Larry Holmes; Ali's face immediately darkens. Eariler, Holmes had mentioned Ali's tendency to be your best friend as long as you were subservient to him; when you got in the ring with him, he'd beat you bad enough to make you bleed out of every orifice just to prove who was boss. When Ali asks what Holmes said about him, Maysles responds "He likes you"; Ali says "I like him too", but there's nothing but rage in his eyes.
Even the contemporary boxing writers (who are always a treat to see, even if their footage isn't as compelling as Maysles' fantastic footage of Ali's rustic backwoods training camp; is there a more stereotypically grizzled bunch of characters than boxing writers?) recognize that this is a story of evil. They describe the fight in terms of an "abomination", or a "crime"; Ali's former fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco — who quit in 1978 when Ali wouldn't retire — says that everyone who had anything to do with the bout should have spent time in jail. The only problem is, it's a crime without a criminal, a evil deed without an evildoer. Everyone seems culpable for allowing a fight that clearly shouldn't have happened to go on, and there's one simple reason why. Ali's security man, Wali Muhammad, speaks it the first time we see him: "Money."
The fight promoters seeking to squeeze a big payday off of a name fighter past his prime; Ali's trainers, managers and hangers-on, knowing they'd be out of work if he didn't fight; the Nevada boxing commission, licensing a fight after seeing a medical report on Ali that Pacheco says wouldn't pass muster for a middle-aged accountant; the sports media, looking for one more big story out of a living legend; and Ali himself, utterly unwilling to admit that his time might be past, that his moment might be over, that, despite the charming footage of him performing sleight-of-hand magic for nerdy kids coming to visit his training camp, he might not have one last trick up his sleeve. "Ali was the last man to know he shouldn't make the fight," sighs Pacheco.
So, lacking anyone else to blame for the disaster that unfolded in Las Vegas, the public settled on the man who least deserved it: Larry Holmes. After some breathtaking footage of him making his prayers and reading the Q'uran, Ali never looks comfortable again; he's cocky, but it's all boast. The man who made a stunning comeback against Leon Spinks is gone, replaced by a soft, shaken, nervous fighter, rationalizing his own defeat to sparring partners half his age. Holmes, on the other hand, looks relaxed and cool, with the quiet ease of a young, powerful man who knows he's invincible. He kisses his baby, hugs his wife, drives around in his souped-up Cadillac listening to a song about himself; he's watched the tape and heard the reports from Ali's camp. He knows there's no way he can be beaten, and if he seems frustrated, it's because no one else seems to share that knowledge.
The day of the fight (before which Ali, misdiagnosed with a kidney problem, was overdosing on medication along with all his other problems) was an utter shame. It's heartwrenchingly painful to watch someone once as dominant as Ali standing in the ring as if he didn't even know the rules of boxing; Holmes totally runs the fight from the first round, with Ali barely throwing any punches and the whole affair dragging along only because Holmes couldn't bring himself to beat his opponent as badly as he should have. Holmes almost looks apologetic when he lands blow after blow on Ali, until it all comes to an end in the 11th round at a point that's far beyond mercy. As a result, the press and the public blamed the blameless Holmes for forever tarnishing their image of the beloved Ali. Holmes, who might have been one of the greatest fighters of all time, has since had to live with a criminally underrated reputation; even when Maysles' film crew comes to visit him at home 30 years after the fight, his wife says with a long-suffering expression, "Look how long it took you to get here."
Maysles and Kaplan have, unsurprisingly, turned in the best installment so far of this young series. Their combination of outstanding footage from the time of the fight and contemporary interviews with people still bearing the emotional scars of its fallout makes for a perfect boxing drama with a powerful emotional punch that's not lessened by the fact that it depicts a terrible wrong which can never be righted, because the blame is too thick to spread. Maysles refuses to take a simple good-and-bad approach, showing us Ali's misplaced cockiness and unpleasant attitude in one scene and then, in the next, reminding us of his greatness, as a black casino employee explains his decision to bet on Ali even though he doesn't think he'll win because "he gave me my dignity". Coming almost at the end of the film, there's a moment of terrible sadness: in the locker room after the fight, Howard Cosell, interviewing a teary-eyed Holmes — who knows exactly what he's done and what it means — does what he did best, asking completely unnecessary questions. "I want you to explan why you've been crying," intones Cosell. A better question: after seeing all that, who wouldn't be?
- I could do without the little bumpers at the start and halfway point where the filmmakers yack at the camera. They're too short to add anything insightful to the films.
- The Maysles' footage of Ali's training camp is amazing; I could watch it for hours. The place looked like an old hunting lodge, but with an element of media circus around it, as Ali entertains visiting fans, goofs around with his old friends, ignores his obviously miserable supermodel wife, and talks trash about Holmes. Holmes, on the other hand, seems not to have changed at all over the last three decades, other than calling his wife on a slightly newer model of car phone.
- The two faces of Wali Muhammad (who, before the fight, makes the odd claim that Ali's Muslim faith makes him ten years younger than his actual age) are quite telling. He's supremely confident in period footage, hoping up until the brutal second round of the fight that his man can actually pull off the win; but in contemporary footage, he has the old wisdom of someone who never believed it.
- Has anyone ever seen the original Muhammad And Larry short? It's on one of the Maysles Brothers collected sets, although it never got a public showing. I'd be interested to see what got carried over and what got left off.