The Kings of the Ring is a 90-minute documentary that focuses its attention solely on the world heavyweight champions of boxing from Jack Dempsey to James "Buster" Douglas. It eschews any greater history of boxing in favor of the stories of those champs who reached what the film calls the highest honor in sports. Even though the view is so limited The Kings of the Ring does a fine job of placing the times in which these fighters fought in socio-political context, discussing how Jewish fighter Max Baer sported a star of David on his trunks as he defeated Max Schmeling, unfairly dubbed Hitler's favorite boxer due to his German nationality, or Cassius Clay's conversion to the controversial Nation of Islam and his renaming himself Muhammed Ali, his conviction for refusing the Viet Nam draft, and his focusing the nation's attention on the racial divisions in every day life.
Ali is the most dynamic and fascinating of all boxers and his story is amply available on other discs as well (The Ultimate Muhammed Ali Collection contains three of his biggest fights in their entireties while the beautiful, Oscar-winning When We Were Kings focuses entirely on the amazing Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman), but allowing the broader perspective of his place in the canon of greats, along with Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano (the only heavyweight to retire champ and not return to blemish his record), Sonny Liston, and Jack Dempsey, the original superstar of boxing adds a richness to his story.
The Kings of the Ring doesn't just show the highs the boxers achieved; there are also low-points, like Joe Louis' embarrassing late comeback attempt or Italian champ Primo Carnera's disgusting "comedy" match against a kangaroo. Some of the boxers get dragged into the political arena against their wills, like Schmeling, while others welcome it, like Ali who openly discussed the rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed. Each of the champs had a distinct personality (Gene Tunney was a scholar, Max Baer a clown, Sonny Liston a criminal, Mike Tyson a troubled soul) and The Kings of the Ring does a fine job exploring each of them.
The Kings of the Ring and its narrator Louis Gossett Jr. approach the topic of heavyweight boxing with the appropriate mix of awe and mournfulness (after all, many of these men destroyed themselves by doing the very thing that made them great), a tone that is only interrupted with the occasional blast of totally out of place heavy metal music.
Director Christopher Rose has clearly watched Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull a number of times: The opening credits and his use of color home movies mirror that great film's style, but it works. The Kings of the Ring is an enjoyable and informative documentary that could have benefited from a few more points of view and some interviews. Too often it feels like a shorter Ken Burns piece: Mostly narration over stills and archival footage.
The Kings of the Ring consists of a collage of old boxing reels and more modern cable broadcasts, provided by distributor HBO. All of the older footage looks surprisingly good, considering that some of it dates to 1919. Some of the newer footage looks more worn than I've seen it elsewhere. but the entire presentation looks pretty good. The picture is full frame.
The sound is well-produced Dolby Digital 2.0. There is nothing too fancy during the fights, seeing as how they weren't set up for optimum recording conditions and many of the early fights were recorded silent. But the filmmakers dubbed in crowds and sound effects to add a dimension to the old footage. The music is mostly appropriate and dramatic, except for the heavy metal nonsense I mentioned earlier that almost seems like a mistake.
There are no extras. This is a shame given that plenty of fight footage must be available to HBO Home Video.
For those who are interested in a brief history of the crowning achievement of a sport that has, at times, been the greatest in the land, The Kings of the Ring offers a good introduction. For those who are already fans it will be a great reminder of some of the giants of the past.