Muhammad Ali

5 Essential Muhammad Ali Movies

Muhammad Ali passed away yesterday at the age of 74, and the Interwebs are buzzing about the greatest fighter of all time.

I must admit, I’ve never been a fan of boxing – two people pummeling each other in the ring until one falls over isn’t really my idea of a sport. But you can’t deny that Ali was the best of the best, and a character both in and out of the ring.

He went from underdog to champ and back again many times, and who doesn’t know his classic tagline, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”? Here are five essential films about Muhammad Ali that remind us why he truly was the Greatest Fighter of All Time.


1. When We Were Kings (1996, Amazon). Leon Gast’s documentary reveals the behind-the-scenes story of the Rumble in the Jungle, the legendary 1974 bout between an aging Ali (then 32) and a brutal young George Foreman (years away from becoming the sweet electric-grill pitchman). The match, as recalled by such sports literati as Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, is just one part of the events surrounding the bout, which included a music festival with James Brown and B.B. King. But it was definitely the most exciting part, featuring the most memorable of Ali’s many comebacks. When We Were Kings is a great movie about Muhammad Ali, and possibly the best movie about boxing ever made.

2. Facing Ali (2009, Amazon). In this documentary, ten of Muhammad Ali’s opponents describe what it was like to go up against the heavyweight at various stages of his career. Whether they were the winners or the losers, these fighters – including Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, and Larry Holmes – all pay their respects to the fighter. Note: This is playing on Spike TV tonight, Saturday, June 4 at 9pm ET/PT.

3. The Greatest (1977, Amazon). This biopic stars Ali as himself. Sure, it’s not a great movie in terms of cinematic quality. The film skips over some of Ali’s less flattering moments, and the narrative is not all that exciting. Still, Ali is such a charming character that those other elements don’t really matter much.

4. Ali the Fighter (1971, Amazon). This documentary was shot during the first of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s three epic bouts. It gives us a peek behind the curtain at some of the tensions surrounding the event. Frazier had supported Ali during his protest against the Vietnam War – which kept Ali out of the ring for several years – but then Ali betrayed him with vicious taunts in the weeks before the fight. The film also includes all 15 rounds of what many fight fans consider to be the greatest heavyweight title match of all time.

5. Ali (2001, Amazon). Will Smith stars as Muhammad Ali in this biopic from Michael Mann. The movie covers perhaps the most pivotal decade of the fighter’s life, including his defeat of Sonny Liston, his conversion to Islam, his antiwar protests, his long exile from the ring, and his eventual victory over Foreman in the Rumble. The story is washed in Mann’s typical moody approach to filmmaking, and delivers a solid Hollywood take on the fighter.


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