On the 3rd of June 2016, 10:05pm ET at a Miami Marlins baseball game, the death of a legend of the 20th century was announced on the scoreboard to the 22,269 fans in attendance. And with that, in the following hours, tributes poured in. Britain woke up the next morning to the news that Muhammad Ali had died, after a 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, almost half of his whole life.
Born Cassius Clay (Ali later changed his name after adopting Islam), the man’s influence reached far beyond his own sport of boxing, which he brought back into the modern era after a steady decline in popularity. He famously refused being drafted into the US military during the Vietnam War. He was a prolific civil rights speaker, changing the definition of an athlete’s greatness in the eyes of many black Americans. His anti-establishment stance inspired the youth of America to change the way America thought. He was an undeniably great human.
As a way of celebrating his life I have decided to compile a list of the greatest boxing films – films with a long history to cinema, much like their long history of humanity. Each film acting as an image of one time or one aspect of Muhammad Ali’s life:
The 1976 Best Picture Academy Award winner, a story of a young, working class Italian-American boxer, a uneducated but kind man, who achieves his own American dream, having his shot at the world heavyweight championship. Much like Ali’s own rags to riches story, going from poverty in Louisville, Kentucky, to taking on the world.
Million Dollar Baby
Another Best Picture Academy Award winner from 2004; Hilary Swank plays a headstrong, determined, up and coming boxer. But after (spoilers) she has a terrible accident after her boxing opponent pulls an illegal sucker punch, causing her to break her neck, she must struggle as a quadriplegic. Whilst this of course doesn’t parallel Ali’s own career, its focus on overcoming the adversary faced due to being a minority, as well as the dangers of the sport, make it a fantastic great parable of Ali’s own life, not just a fantastic film.
On the Waterfront
YET another Best Picture Academy Award winner, but this time from 1954. On the Waterfront isn’t really about boxing, but its main character (played by legendary Marlon Brando) was once a promising boxer, who has now turned to helping workers rights for dockworkers – paralleling Ali’s own civil rights work. It being one of the greatest films in American history is just a bonus.
Not a best picture winner; this Martin Scorsese classic on the male psyche and its affect on one boxer’s personal life as he rises to world champion. Self-destructive obsessive rage, sexual jealousy, and animalistic appetite. All these reflect the darker parts of Ali’s life, who like all of us, has his flaws. 4 marriages, 9 children, and 1 affair.
We of course cannot ignore two great films literally about Muhammad Ali; Ali, a 2001 Michael Mann biopic, and When We Were Kings, 1996 documentary on the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
These films are some of the best about boxing in all cinema; and returning to a point made earlier, cinema has a long history with boxing films. So honour the greatest loss in the history of the sport by exploring the films which best reflect the man.