ESPN 30 for 30: Muhammad and Larry (2009)

Directed by Albert Maysles & Bradley Kaplan

Muhammad Ali is the self proclaimed GOAT, the greatest of all time, and boy would I have liked to be alive during his prime to witness not only his antics, but also his athletic prowess. I don’t really like violent sports, but for some reason boxing has always been attractive to me, something in the aura it puts off as a “sweet science” and a chess game. I really can’t explain it because it is brutally violent and has affected so many of its athletes, most notably Muhammad Ali himself, who now is a shell of himself, a strong, intimidating man limited by his disabilities as a result of his career in the ring. However, I never knew about the limelight of his career.

In this documentary, famed director Albert Maysles follows Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes before their 1980 Heavyweight Championship bout which ultimately ended Ali’s career. Using this footage, Maysles, and partner Bradley Kaplan return to those closest to the fight and create a sort of retrospective on the events that led up to and included the fight itself. Unfortunately Ali does not make an appearance other than in the old footage, but his persona lives up to his legend and it actually becomes a heartbreaking elegy to his career. The story of Larry Holmes and his relationship to Ali is also explored and the difference in styles makes for a compelling documentary.

When I had heard that Albert Maysles was part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series, I was excited and impressed, even without having seen any of his legendary documentary work. Bradley Kaplan, however, I am unfamiliar with, but their collaboration works wonderfully here. The greatest strength of the film, not surprisingly, is the footage from 1980. The previous episodes in this series have not quite utilized that archive footage but here Maysles and Kaplan use it as the mainstay. They are able to tell the story with that footage and supplement with the new stuff. Everything else to this point has been the other way around.

So after discussing the wonderful filmmaking, let me speak to the actual story which was awesome. My interest in boxing certainly factors in to the equation, but Ali was also a cultural icon. I wish lived during his reign as king because I am sure it was a sight to see, even if he was an arrogant annoyance to some. His career was amazing, a four time champion, but for his career to end basically in this tragic fight was in fact tragic to witness. The footage of the fight was brutal to watch, and the comments of everybody now and then are right on. It was a shame that the fight went as far as it did. It is hard to point directly to this fight to blame for a lot of what happened to Ali afterward, but it is also hard not to say it was a major player in his decline as a boxer and as a functioning person.

And on the other side of the coin is Larry Holmes, who got criminally overlooked during his career simply because he was not as outlandish as someone like Ali when he was a strong champion in his own right. The spirit of Ali and the relationship of the two makes the circumstances of their bout very sad indeed. Watching the footage of Ali train was difficult to see as he was clearly slower and more overweight than before, and it was clear he was not going to compete. So to learn that he was taking pills that actually made him weaker just adds to the horror of the situation. If I had one gripe about the film it’s that I wish it had been longer than an hour because I wanted to spend more time with and learn more about these two. Easily the best of the series so far.


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