LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A split decision victory, not a decisive KO. A glancing right hand, not a stinging left jab. Jerry Quarry, not George Foreman.
I could keep throwing boxing metaphors at you to describe my view of "What's My Name?", the two-part, roughly three-hour documentary about Muhammad Ali that was developed by a production company owned by LeBron James and his boyhood pal, Maverick Carter.
It's Kevin Love, not LeBron James.
In other words, it's good not great.
Tremendous footage of Ali interviews from the days that his personality was vibrant, inspiring, adversarial and entertaining. The way Ali was the the liveliest voice in every room before Parkinson's.
But nothing that I'd classify as new and revealing.
Riveting clips of Ali in the ring. It starts with the days Louisville policeman Joe Martin sent him into the ring because his bicycle had been stolen and ends with mostly snapshots from a 1981 farewell bout against Trevor Berbick that was staged at an abandoned airstrip in the Bahamas, a troubling spectacle that I covered for the Louisville Times.
But there is little here that will make ardent Ali fans say, "Wow."
Entertaining exchanges with Howard Cosell, Malcolm X, Dinah Shore, Steve Allen, Jim Brown and other celebrities from those glorious and turbulent days.
But nothing that moved me to text; "YOU GOTTA SEE THIS!!!" to friends.
Good, not great.
Important, not essential.
Informative, not revealing.
Worth a three-hour time on a rainy day or a free evening, but not a Clear Your Calendar moment.
That's not a criticism. It's just an assessment. Writing a column about Muhammad Ali is a daunting assignment when you pause to remember that Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, David Remnick and a million other talented writers have already addressed the subject.
Good luck trying to say something that has not been said dozens of times.
Ditto for movies and documentaries. Ali's story, with its roots in Louisville where he grew up known as Cassius Clay and graduated from Central High School, can be learned and understood by anybody with the curiosity and energy to study it.
Maybe that is why James, Carter and director Antoine Fuqua followed this path in "What's My Name?"
It's a chronological, blow-by-blow look at Ali that focuses more on his performance in the ring than his status as an objector to the Vietnam War, his name-changing conversion to Islam or his maturity into an international icon for human rights.
Ali's life, his triumphs, his struggles and his causes, were too complex for three hours.
The title of the documentary is tied to his name change -- from Clay to Ali in 1964 after his first victory over Sonny Liston. The film is a reminder that some of the most strident resistance to recognizing the change came from blacks, especially Floyd Patterson, members of Joe Frazier's camp, Ernie Terrell and Liston.
But "What's My Name?" is a reminder that the reason Ali was able to position himself for any of those achievements was his gifts as a remarkably talented, entertaining and punishing boxer.
To watch the build-up and then the footage of Ali's three-fight trilogy with Joe Frazier is to be reminded that during those days those bouts were at the absolute top of the sports calendar, ahead of the Super Bowl, the NBA playoffs, the Final Four, the World Series, everything.
Watching the beatings that Ali took from Frazier, Leon Spinks and, finally, Larry Holmes inspires questions about why none of his closest advisors and friends did not make him stop fighting several years before the official end in December 1981.
Louisville makes several cameo appearances -- and not all of them are flattering. There are clips of downtown as well as Ali driving around the city.
There is the famous aftermath of (then) Clay's return to his hometown after he traveled to Rome and won the 1960 Olympic gold medal as a light heavyweight against boxers from Russia and Poland.
"I'm defeating America's so-called threats and enemies," Ali told on interviewer. "Olympic champion. Russian standing right here and the Pole right there.
"And the flag is going."
At this point, he starts to hum several lines of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
"And I done whipped the world for America. And I said, 'Man, I know I'm going to get my people freedom now. I'm the champion of the whole world, Olympic champion.
"I know I can eat downtown now. And I went downtown that day and had my big ol' medal on. Went in a restaurant and said, 'A cup of coffee and a hot dog.'
"The lady said, 'We don’t serve Negroes.'
"I was so mad, I said, 'And I don't eat 'em either. Just give me a cup of coffee and a hamburger.'"
It was Ali at his provocative best, delivering a stinging rebuke in a manner that left the people laughing and thinking.
There are other moments like that in the documentary. There simply are not enough.
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