By Jason Bellamy
There's no glory in following a legend. Larry Holmes realized that even before he stepped into the ring with Muhammad Ali in 1980 for their notorious title fight. Holmes was 35-0 at the time with 26 knockouts. He had defended his heavyweight crown a remarkable seven times in two years. But when people looked at Holmes they didn't see a great champion. They saw someone who wasn't Ali. This is hardly a rare phenomenon in sports, but it's especially notable here for two reasons: 1) Ali was a greater legend than most—an adored and charismatic figure who was as significant culturally as athletically; 2) Holmes wasn't just misfortunate enough to come into his prime after Ali's reign; he also had the thankless task of beating the over-the-hill but still beloved fighter with his fists in the most gruesome loss of Ali's career. To Ali's fans, this was adding injury to insult. Holmes, just doing his job, could have more effectively won the love of the people by getting arrested for dog fighting.
This famous and unfortunate clash of boxing titans is the subject of Muhammad and Larry, the fourth and thus far best documentary to be released as part of ESPN Films' "30 for 30" series. It's directed by Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan and it utilizes a great deal of never-before-seen footage that Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) shot for a planned 1980 documentary that was never released. Given the public fascination with Ali, it's staggering to think that it's taken almost 30 years for the footage to be unearthed. Then again, it isn't a surprise at all. Maysles' 1980 footage is a record of devastation. As heartbreaking as it is to see Ali now, crippled by Parkinson's syndrome, this is almost worse. In 1980, Ali was 38 and hadn't fought in two years. Just two months before the fight, he was overweight—ultimately slimming down by misusing thyroid medication as diet pills. Beyond all of that, it's obvious now, if somehow it wasn't then, that a career of taking blows to the head had taken a toll on Ali's speech and motor skills. The beloved "Greatest of All Time," whose most celebrated fights were the ones in which none of the experts gave him a chance, was brain damaged and about to step into the ring with Holmes, who at 29 wasn't a dope who could be roped into a mistake—not that Ali was in any condition to capitalize on a mistake if Holmes made one.
To read the rest of the review at The Cooler, click here.