In less than a week, the latest documentary about Muhammad Ali will debut on movie screens across the country. As I watched the short trailer for the film, I was surprised by how unsurprised I felt that there was another documentary about this legendary boxer.
In the study of history, young students are faced early with the question of what makes certain people “great.” Are these people cut from a different cloth, made somehow inherently unique? Or were they just the beneficiaries of impeccable timing — in the right place at the right time? Usually, such lofty questions are reserved for political leaders, avant-garde artists and genius inventors, but not always.
At its most simplistic, sports is just an accounting of numbers — lowest score in golf wins a tournament, the most points in a football game wins. Occasionally, certain sport performances transcend the numbers because of amazing feats of courage, endurance or uncanny skill. But only once in a great while does an athlete transcend sports altogether. And even more rare, sometimes the content of an athlete’s character sways the pendulum of history.
There have been hundreds of books and dozens of documentaries created about Muhammad Ali because he is one of those precious few athletes. So much about Ali not only captures the zeitgeist of the 1960s and ’70s, but he also helped mold it. His trials, the ones inside a courtroom, the ones inside a boxing ring and the ones as a black man in America, will hopefully all be explored in this upcoming documentary. To do anything else is to let down the subject, who is maybe the greatest sports figure who ever lived.
Ali once said, “Boxing was nothing. It wasn’t important at all. Boxing was just a means to introduce me to the world.” Maybe that’s true. And maybe that’s all this documentary will focus on, but I doubt it. Even if Ali was truthful, his introduction to the world might be the most flashy and spectacular introduction of all time. It would be a shame for a new generation of sports fans not get a glimpse of Ali’s ring dancing, his quick shuffle, the “phantom” punch of ’65, or the best trash talking ever uttered in sports.
I’m hopeful for the new documentary because with a subject like Ali, it’s hard to be boring, even though it’s even harder to live up to “The Greatest.”