Ali Vs. Frasier (I) took place on March 8th, 1971. Dubbed as "The Fight" (no exotic locale, just Madison Square Garden, thus no flashy nickname), it saw the out of exile undefeated Ali making a stab at the championship that had been taken away from him when he refused to enlist in Vietnam. Before him was the undefeated Joe Frasier. The fight was a huge event, the most expensive and profitable fight of the time.
Physically, the two couldn't have been more different in their appearance and fight style. Ali was all speed and precision, standing tall and straight, with a weaving, slipping, and ducking defense. Frasier on the other hand, was methodical and one-dimensional, that dimension being bent, plodding forward, hulking after his opponents, and throwing powerful shots, particularly a killer left hook that always had dangerous intent.
The fight went the distance, and it was Frasier's relentlessness and savage left hook, including one that staggered Ali in the 11th round and another that dropped Ali, who had only been knocked down three times before in his career, in the 15th and final round.
Am I a fight fan. It is my sport, the only one I have regularly followed in my adult life. It is safe to say the shadow of Muhammad Ali looms large over boxing, if not all sports. There is boxing before Ali and boxing after Ali. Since Ali, it isn't enough for boxers to have skill or blood and guts desire. To be a true star and champion, you are expected to have personality too. And that has always been unfair, because the titanic personality, cultural significance, mental games, and showmanship of someone like Ali doesn't come around very often- Hell, in boxing, it hasn't come around at since.
And, that brings me to one of the peculiarities of the cinema verite style documentary Ali The Fighter which covers, from all angles, the first Ali Vs. Frasier fight. Ali... LOST THE FIGHT... yet he is the cover boy and title star of this documentary. Even in his greatest defeat (when he was at the peak of his comeback and still in his youth), he wins. Frasier exposed all of Ali's flaws as a fighter, caught the uncatchable, and made Ali's signature psychological warfare just a bunch of empty talk. But who gets the glory?
It dives right in, spending much of its time with the fighters, Ali greeting fans on the street or speaking at a school, always captivating his audience with wit and charisma. Not much of Frasier is seen outside the gym, though he is shown attending church. The pre-fight locker room interviews show a relaxed Ali calmly answering questions and a tense, agitated Frasier,who wasnt accustomed to so much press attention. We see the press view of things, where Ali was the master, even on the day of the fight, yelling out his predictions in the arena as the ring is being prepped; the scene ending with a freeze frame on a disinterested, zit faced vendor, probably more concerned with his long minimum wage night rather than the fight. You also witness the press discussing the fight itself. We overhear the street opinion, watch stars pack the arena (including Life magazine photographer of the night Frank Sinatra and ring commentator Burt Lancaster), and the promoters and financiers taking flack over the exorbitant ticket prices.
As I said, this doc is very verite, loose, and observational. So, if you are looking for facts, you wont really find them. Little notations on the people talking, like the corner men or the posh financier would have been nice. Typical of late 60's/early 70's docs, it is more concerned with putting you into the fray and capturing the mood of the surroundings. Likewise, the film culminates with the actual fight, in real time except for edited bits in between rounds, and there is no fight commentary. You are left with just the sound of the punches and the roar of the crowd.
The DVD: Anchor Bay.
Picture: Full-screen. The imdb lists the format as 35mm, but I think that is inaccurate. More typical of the era, to keep things loose and handheld, it was probably more likely something like 16mm. They were certainty using very high speed film because it is awash in very heavy grain and has harsh exposure to compensate for low/natural lighting conditions. Having only seen the fight from the tv/close circuit footage, this doc gives you some closer, ringside angles. Again, it is severe in its roughness, but that appears to be a product of the chosen format and style.
Sound: Straightforward Mono, no subs. Again, as inherent to the nature of the film, it is very rough and on the spot recorded. The conditions weren't always obliging, so you get a lot of external noise in the party or street scenes. But, if you are a fight fan, just having the fight without any ring commentary is neat. You hear the punches and the crowd reaction more clearly. And, one thing you had to rely on commentators to confirm in the past, you can actually hear the ref telling Ali to "stop talking."
Conclusion: Anchor Bay really hasn't gone the extra mile in terms of its presentation. In a way, I can see why. The avant garde, observational presentation, the lack of talking head commentary and other doc trappings, make this harder to digest than a more crowd friendly fight doc like When We Were Kings. Therefore, this is really a fan only affair, but a worthwhile one. So, I'll give it a rental.