Champs on the big screen: "Ali," 2001

By my count, an even dozen of the heavyweight champions have biopics telling their life story (one of these, The Harder They Fall, is an original story inspired by the life of Primo Carnera). Other champs appear on the big screen in other roles. I’ve seen most of these movies.

Michael Mann's 2001 Ali, starring Will Smith, came out amid a resurgence of interest in its subject. After some hard years dealing with his illness, Muhammad Ali had enjoyed two recent triumphs: lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 and watching his younger self star in the 1998 Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kingswhich told the story of his fight against George Foreman in Africa. And three months before Ali opened, the ailing champ, with Will Smith standing beside him, made a plea for tolerance in the aftermath of 9/11. 

Ali boasts a big-name cast--Jon Voight is great as Howard Cosell--and earned plaudits for its fight scenes, but it's a forgettable movie, strictly adulatory and offering no challenges of perspective. The plot seems more like a distraction around Ali than anything else. Smith makes a good Ali impersonator, but his Ali never seems real. It's not all his fault: so much of Ali's public life was a performance of its own that portraying him was bound to feel artificial. A different obstacle faces viewers coming to the movie today: with so much of the real Ali now available on YouTube (hours and hours' worth), why watch a make-believe version?

Ali may not stick in the mind of many who saw it, but it did mean something to Ali's kin. When the Greatest died last June, his family named Will Smith one of the pallbearers.