Is there a sports figure who has been more thoroughly documented than Muhammad Ali? The three-time heavyweight champ was one of the first professional athletes to fully capture the attention of mass media, and to understand how he could utilize it. Reporters loved him because he made good copy; he gave funny, sharp quotes, his story was dramatic, and his charisma was palpable. Because he was such a compelling figure, and there's so much great footage of him in action (in and out of the ring), you can trace the bulk of his career through the documentary films that have taken him as their subject: from the early days in Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami to the "Rumble in the Jungle", seen in the brilliant Oscar-winning doc When We Were Kings to the Thrilla in Manila to his tragic final fights, seen in the excellent new ESPN documentary Muhammad and Larry. (Michael Mann's biographical feature Ali helps fill in some of the blanks as well.)
But Champions Forever pre-dates them all, its primary (in fact, its only) advantage over those films is that director Dimitri Logothetis was able to capture Ali's thoughts on his most famous bouts before his Parkinson's nearly grinded his ability to speak to a halt. To be sure, his speech has slowed here, but he still has his considerable warmth, charisma, and good humor (the camera captures his "Wanna see it again?" joke, among many others). His discussions and memories of fight strategies are lucid and enlightening, and his grin remains downright infectious.
The film also includes his contemporaries Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Forman, and Larry Holmes, opening with Holmes' 1988 loss to Mike Tyson, the heir apparent (at that time, anyway) to Ali. The film then moves back to profile each of the eventual champions--their humble beginnings, and how they entered the ring. Though the four contemporaries get some screen time, Ali is the documentary's primary focus; it walks us through his early triumphs, his conversion to Islam, his controversial anti-draft stand, and his subsequent return to the sport. His story is intercut with the rise of the other fighters, and their thoughts on their own styles and how they faced off against Ali.
As a clip show, Champions Forever is fantastic; there's amazing old footage of Ali's amateur and early professional bouts, as well as his early pro fights (good lord, he was so young and so fast), and a great clip of him joking around at a weigh-in. Most of the important fights get at least a mention, though few are delved into in great detail. And the contributions of his fellow fighters are significant (especially during an enjoyable, and sometimes tense, roundtable interview).
So as a document, it's invaluable--to see these clips, to hear these guys remember these fights. But as documentary filmmaking, it's strictly paint-by-numbers; though it's full of iconic moments and tremendous stories, it never sucks us in the way that the best sports documentaries (and, for that matter, the Ali docs listed above) do.
This new "definitive edition" of Champions Forever has a somewhat awkward construction. There are three parts--the two bonus features and the film itself, which runs 80 minutes--but the menu's "Play all" option plays them in an odd order that puts the feature up between the two extras.
The video quality is, overall, pretty poor. The sketchy quality of the old clips is understandable, but the new interviews are a soft, fuzzy, washed-out mess, full of ugly grain, compression artifacts, ghosting, and comet trails. The aspect ratio is also all over the place--it begins in non-anamorphic letterboxed, but then uses some full-frame archival footage before going completely full frame about twenty minutes in.
The 2.0 mix is also pretty muddy, primarily due to the less-than-perfect recording of the interviews, which are sometimes difficult to understand (and given no assistance by absent subtitles). Some of Ali's "lost interviews" are captured on the fly, but even the sit-down, studio chats are frequently encumbered by hiss and other surface noise. It's a fleeting issue, and doesn't ruin the experience, but it's still nothing to recommend.
There are two bonus items, both of them bulky, one better than the other. The "Lost Interviews" (31:15) consists of outtakes and extras with Ali shot in the late 80s, during production of the film and at its premiere. It has some good stories (including how he threw away his gold medal), some funny lines (Of Howard Cosell, the interviewer says, "You made him a known name," to which Ali replies, "And he didn't give me a quarter!"), and some good clips, but the attempt to present it as a stand-alone piece doesn't work; it's formless, shapeless.
"Dinner with the Champs" (30:32) is an awkwardly-staged piece, a dinner/group interview hosted (inexplicably) by baseball legend Reggie Jackson. The featurette has its moments, but it is overlong and mostly redundant, and is burdened by some pretty bad sound.
With its wide focus and conventional style, Champions Forever might serve as a worthwhile introduction to Ali for younger audiences, or a pleasant stroll down memory lane for old fans. But it suffers in comparison to the many Muhammad Ali documentaries that have followed it; those films offer penetrating analysis and genuine tension and insight, while this one is more like a greatest-hits reel.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.