Watching Facing Ali (2009) is at once an uplifting and immensely saddening experience. Through its 1 hour, 40 minutes, the viewer gets a look at the full gamut of sport, from the elemental through the brutal to the sublime.
The film—on HBO recently, watch out for reruns—is essentially a documentary of 10 fighters reminiscing about their bouts with boxer Muhammad Ali, but it’s actually more than that. They talk about their lives, their past, their present; most were black and grew up in America’s Deep South in the 1950s. One had a father hunted by the Ku Klux Klan; another speaks about losing his sons to heroin; yet another recalls being part of a gang and watching gangland killings. Some of them are articulate and fully functional; a couple show the effects of years of boxing, they can barely speak and walk with a shuffle or with the help of a stick.
Standing tall: This DVD cover of Facing Ali shows Muhammad Ali towering over Sonny Liston after their 1965 fight. Photograph by: Wikimedia Commons
All of them, though, have the grace and bearing of champions—they stand proud and upright, yet with the humility that comes to those who have seen life, been to the edge and come back.
Their words and bearing, and especially those of the film’s central character, offer a stark contrast to today’s vanilla world of sport, where the principals rarely have an opinion, much less offer it. Cricketers Nasser Hussain’s and Ravi Shastri’s spat was one aspect of it; when was the last time you heard a sportsman say something insightful or thought-provoking?
Few dare to, for fear of violating loosely defined codes of conduct. It’s not just India; the English footballer, Joey Barton, has been put up for sale by his club Newcastle after a series of tweets not exactly flattering to his employers. This time last year, cricketer Kevin Pietersen was fined by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for his reaction to being dropped from England’s One Day squad and a few years ago, Manchester United sacked their hugely influential captain Roy Keane after a surprisingly frank appraisal of his teammates on the club’s own channel (dubbed Pravda for obvious reasons).
Ironical, isn’t it? The easier it is to communicate, the more there is to say, but the less there is said.
That’s what made Ali so special. When there was something to be said, he said it—at the risk of losing everything, including his title. Forget, for the moment, his masterly handling of the media in building his own image; focus on his refusal to fight in Vietnam: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.”
Sharp and succinct, but it was not a popular sentiment, not even among his fellow blacks. Among those who opposed it was his long-time bête noire Joe Frazier, the man Ali taunted for being an “Uncle Tom”, for being ugly, for being stupid. Frazier hated him, believing Ali had crossed a line, and had his revenge in 1971 by winning the first of their three bouts. Yet Frazier offers one of the most poignant moments in Facing Ali when, wiping a tear, he hopes for Ali to spend his days healthy and free of Parkinson’s, “because he deserves it... He’s a good man”.
That sort of honour and honesty among sportsmen is increasingly rare; you see echoes of that in Fire in Babylon (2010), the documentary on the great West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s, where few of their opponents criticize their intimidatory tactics. Both sides knew the way the game was played; only the onlookers, not the participants, drew moral conclusions on the means employed. Rising standards of living the world over have made sport less of a desperate lifeline and more a cold-eyed career move with many more opportunities. It holds true for the children in the favelas of Rio, the highlands of Kenya, the war zones of western Africa. Poverty is still a factor—ask Manny Pacquiao, the master boxer from the Philippines who left home at 14 because his mother simply couldn’t cope with feeding six children—but there is a bigger safety net and sport itself is more organized.
There are now other areas of inequality to which sport offers a level playing field: race, ethnicity, gender (exemplified in India by the likes of boxer Mary Kom and the wrestling sisters from Bhiwani, Geeta and Babita Kumari) and even sexual orientation. Simply put, there is no longer a need to put one’s life on the line, as all those boxers did to put food on the table.
As former heavyweight boxer Ken Norton said: “The first Ali fight gave me a chance to give my son more food, better clothes. A fight with Ali gave me a chance at life, period.”
I guess it’s a catch-22 situation; the greater the general prosperity, the higher the stakes, the lower the desire to change. There are associations, lobby groups, rights groups and watchdogs but there’s only one boat and no one really wants to rock it. Freedom, as the song goes, is just another word for nothing left to lose; today’s stars come with a price tag too high for them to be free.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org