“From his home state of Kentucky to the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, from boxing rings to the Supreme Court, Muhammad Ali — who died Friday at the age of 74 — left an incalculable legacy to both America and the world.
It’s fortunate for us that part of that bequest has been well-documented on film over the years, from 1977′s biopic The Greatest to the Oscar-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings. Ali’s magnetic screen presence was undeniable: Had his arena been the movies rather than the ring, there’s no doubt he would have been a contender. He had the magnetic sensuality of the young Marlon Brando, the shy sweetness of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and the ferocity of Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. In newsreels, in film, and on the canvas, Ali was both David and Goliath, and never less than a star.
It’s fair to ask, how many films about The Greatest are truly great? Below is just a sampling of some picks In descending order. They might not all be the greatest boxing movies, but they are something more: Films about the greatest man who just happened to be a boxer.
1. When We Were Kings (1996)
Culled from 250 hours of footage, director Leon Gast’s taut, 84-minute documentary chronicles a watershed moment in American history and how it played out on a foreign stage. In 1974, then-unknown promoter Don King lured former heavyweight world champion Ali and current champ George Foreman to Zaire for a bout for which each would receive $5 million, win or lose. The backstory was already compelling: From 1967 to 1970 — career primetime — Ali was stripped of his title and barred from competing for a refusal to serve in Vietnam. He said his his Islamic faith made him a conscientious objector; the courts said he was a draft dodger.
After a Supreme Court reversal, he returned to the ring. “The Rumble in the Jungle” was Ali’s chance to take back the heavyweight crown, but the odds were 7-1 against him…”