What to Watch: “The Greatest” Muhammad and Larry

Muhammad Ali was “the greatest.” In high school, he won 100 out of 108 fights. At age 18, he won the 1960 Olympic gold medal for boxing’s light heavyweight. By 22, he took home the world heavyweight championship title (which he reclaimed in 1974 and 1978).

Ali was young and invincible, surrounded by successes and accolades.

Which is why it’s always tough to be reminded that our sports heroes are mere mortals. This happened last week when Ali was hospitalized for pneumonia. And also in 1980 — when he was defeated by Larry Holmes.

Directed by Bradley Kaplan and Albert Maysles (the later known for his work filming Ali documentary “When We Were Kings”), ESPN Film’s made-for-TV documentary “Muhammad and Larry” captures the shock that ruptured the boxing community when the “greatest” world heavyweight boxing champion was defeated in his last attempt for the title. (Four years later, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.)

“This fight was an abomination,” said Ali’s fight doctor Dr. Ferdie Pacheco (1962-1977). “It was a crime. All the people involved in this fight should have been arrested.”

Muhammad Ali Sports Illustrated CoverFilmed by Maysles, the documentary presents Ali as this strong and powerful bastion, trying to preserve this image.

“[Ali's trainer] Angelo Dundee told us before the fight that why did we think Ali had a chance, and he said, ‘Because the mirror tells Ali like he’s got a chance,” says sports columnist Vic Ziegal. “Ali looks into the mirror like it’s a fairy tale. Who’s the bestest of them all? And he saw himself with the weight loss, that beautiful face and he couldn’t lose.”

Except the unimaginable happened. Ali lost.

Kaplan and Maysles delve into the 1980 fight, cutting back and forth between the past and present, as well as the controversies.

Ali had come out retirement, accepting an $8 million deal to fight Holmes. He was eating thyroid pills like candy.

And three months before the fight, Ali went for testing at a two-day renal and neurological clinic. There, doctors found that Ali had trouble speaking and couldn’t touch his nose. The Nevada State Athletic Commission still licensed Ali to fight Holmes.

Ali’s Shadow

Holmes was Ali’s shadow, this “second-class citizen” and under-appreciated star, said “Chicago Sun-Times” and “Sports Illustrated” writer John Schulian.

“He’s probably our greatest under-rated heavyweight,” Schulian said. “If he’d come before Ali, he would have received more acclaim, or if there was more time from Ali’s departure from the ring.”

“It’s like he’s fallen off the face of the earth,” says his wife, Diane. “Nobody talks about Larry Holmes.”

Instead, Holmes is the guy who receives death threats for his accomplishments.

“There was a lady who came up to me in Las Vegas,” said Holmes. “I’ll never forget that lady. She said, ‘Hi. I hate you.’


‘Because you beat up Muhammad Ali.’”

It’s hard to be reminded that the man once crowned the best heavyweight champion of the world can succumb to mortal afflictions. It’s even harder to live under another man’s shadow. While “Muhammad and Larry” features shaky footage of old stars, Kaplan and Maysles provide telling portraits of two of the world’s greatest heavyweight champs.

“Muhammad and Larry” was directed by Bradley Kaplan and Albert Maysles. 


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