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What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali [Movie Review]


What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali is a 2019 HBO Antoine Fuqua directed documentary about the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. In the past, I would have simply said that Ali was one of the greatest boxers but after watching the documentary, I’ve decided to crown him the G.O.A.T. (Don’t argue, just respect the authority that I have given myself.)


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Shortly before watching What’s My Name I’d seen The Trials of Muhammad Ali which I thought was also good and offered more tightly focused insight on the years he was banned from boxing as well as When We Were Kings which covered his match against George Foreman. In some ways the films built on each other but What’s My Name won out as my favorite because it offered a more complete story of Ali and his career.

It’s always cool to hear about the seemingly insignificant moments that set people on their life path. The series of coincidences that change the course of an individual’s life and the course of history. In this case, a young Cassius Clay got into boxing to learn how to fight so he could beat up the kid that stole his bicycle.

From my perspective, it always seemed like there weren’t many photos of people, especially Black people until maybe the 1960s. Before that time it seemed like photos of people were hard to come by. I guess because it was somewhat expensive to have photos taken, people usually dressed up which gave a skewed perception of what people dressed like under normal circumstances. People also looked fairly serious and almost mean because they had to hold poses for so long.

I’m a huge fan of photography and videography so it was great to see early footage from Clay’s boxing career including his time as an amateur and in the Olympics. It’s quite interesting how several men who went on to become heavyweight champions showed some degree of early promise in the Golden Gloves or Olympics. The Olympics elicit a lot of national pride but many Olympic winners don’t make a lot of money aside from a few stars who capitalize on their win with endorsement deals.

I could only imagine taking punishment in the ring, emerging in the ring, and then returning home broke. To make matters worse, imagine representing your country abroad, winning the Olympic gold medal, only to return home and be refused service at a restaurant. It’s not the same level of sacrifice but in some ways, it reminded me of Black soldiers serving overseas in the World Wars only to return home to being treated as second-class citizens. These individuals stepped up to represent their country on the world stage. But it was back to business as usual when they returned stateside.

From the very beginning, mixed in with the boxing footage is commentary and insights on race relations of the time. Muhammad Ali was certainly charming and charismatic. But to me what set him apart from many other athletes of that time and even the present was his willingness to speak out against racism. It speaks to Ali’s character and conviction in his beliefs that he began his career being an outspoken advocate for the Black community and continued to be that way throughout his career.

I’ve made it a point to not profile Black athletes because I feel like they’re over-represented when discussing Black achievement as though that’s all we can be. But, Ali is different because he excelled within but also beyond the realm of sports and aside from just making money. He used his popularity to speak out on behalf of Black people which is something that many other Black athletes have refused to do.

It seems that quite often athletes, entertainers, and others who achieve a degree of fame or notoriety become unwilling to rock the boat. Their success grants them access to a degree of privilege that allows them to escape some of the day-to-day brushes with racial discrimination. Whether as a matter of appeasing sponsors and the public or truly feeling as though they’ve transcended racial barriers they become less willing to speak on sensitive topics related to race. Sometimes going so far as to downplay or even deny the existence of racism.

I knew that racism was a thing in the 1960s and despite Ali later becoming an international icon, at the time he was disliked by a lot of people. Yet, it was still jarring to hear people not just heckling him from ringside but yelling out racial slurs. And in ways that were reminiscent of the media coverage of Jack Johnson, there were equally racist headlines and fight coverage. By this point, Joe Louis had also been a heavyweight champion so the White public was likely less uncomfortable with Black boxing champs. That is as long as those boxing champs fit a certain persona or stereotype.

There is a short clip of Malcolm X speaking about what Muhammad Ali means to Black people and the Black identity that I found rather interesting and accurate. Society had been firmly against Black people for centuries and there was a long-standing push to make the Black identity synonymous with inferiority. But here comes this proud and confident Black young man who proclaimed to be the greatest and then backed it up with wins. Sure pockets of the public hated him and wanted to see him lose but imagine the pride he inspired in Black people, especially Black children.

In watching and listening to interview clips of other fighters you learn a lot about people’s mindset during that period. To have Ali catching flack from racist factions of the general public was one thing. But it was unbelievable to then have other Black athletes such as Floyd Patterson speak out against Ali simply because he was a Muslim. The pettiness of Ernie Terrell taking it upon himself to continue calling Ali “Cassius Clay” was intended as a sign of disrespect. Sure it was trash talk but it was still religiously motivated.

It’s like you’re hated by one set of people because of your race and stereotypes that they have about who you should be. But then you’re also hated by people of your race because you’re daring to be different. On the one hand, I can see why some people look at those options and decide to just enjoy their fame and money and just be quiet otherwise. Yet, I also see why some people decide that they don’t want to be controlled and told what to say or who to be. They decide that regardless of the consequences they want to be their own person.

I co-signed Ali’s position that he conscientiously objected to being drafted because he refused to go off and supposedly fight for freedom when he wasn’t free at home. It’s obvious that during the turmoil of the 1960s there was a push to bring some of these social movements and activists to heel. In the past when America was at war and implemented a draft, celebrities and athletes would be drafted. It seems to have been mostly a public relations thing as few were sent off to fight. Most were relegated to relatively safe jobs or toured bases as performers to boost morale. But Ali threw a wrench in things by refusing to go along to get along. In the past, wealthy families and males used to pay to have people serve in their place. Even during the Vietnam War young men who were from wealthy families and/or attending college weren’t being drafted at nearly the same rate as poor and working-class young men.

Boxing has nothing to do with military service so why should he have been stripped of his titles, if not for political reasons? During previous wars, Joe Louis chose to play the game as did Jackie Robinson to a degree though he later chose to rebel in his own way. But Black people are not a monolith. I couldn’t get behind Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and others criticizing Ali for refusing to be drafted.

Here’s a man trying to bring about some degree of change for Black people and you’re upset because he’s bringing racial and social issues into the sport? The reality is that Ali didn’t introduce those topics to the sport of boxing. They’d always existed in boxing dating back to the era of Jack Johnson if not earlier. These issues had always been present, the only difference was that Ali simply discussed what was going on in boxing and the wider world in a direct and public manner.

I respected Ali’s decision to refuse to be bullied into going with the program and instead choosing to step aside in his prime to preserve his principles. Boxing and other sports are competitive but I think it’s possible to compete against someone while still treating them with respect as a person. So I give major props to Joe Frazier for his comment that he would be the champ until the champ was back.

That being said, the first Ali v. Frazier fight was exciting with 15 rounds of great fighting and the first time Ali suffered a loss. I enjoyed the brief clip of Ali accepting accountability for losing the fight and explaining where things went wrong. It promoted the ideology that boxers need to maintain their hunger and focus. I love learning about different athletes’ exercise regimens and respect the discipline that it takes to be a champion. So getting some insight into Ali’s workouts and the clips of his training camps were some of my favorite parts of the documentary.

Ali spoke a word in pointing out that a person can get wrapped up and addicted to vices such as alcohol, drugs, and women. But you can just as easily get addicted to your success and thus become your own worst enemy. It says a lot that Ali lost more than one fight but never gave up. He lost to an unknown boxer because he didn’t train properly and underestimated the fight. But I also respect that while he took responsibility for the loss and admitted that he was willing to fight, he was unwilling to kill himself in the process. Boxing is a brutal sport that requires a great deal of pride and confidence but ultimately a fighter’s life and health are worth more than any belt.

I loved the clips of Ali traveling around the world and being welcomed by huge crowds. Some of the things he said during this period were indeed cringeworthy and showed a degree of ignorance about other cultures. But I believe that traveling and having a chance to see how people like and unlike yourself live can vastly expand the mind. Traveling with an open mind and willingness to learn is an antidote to prejudice. Those travel clips combined with great music throughout the film add a special flair and feeling to the documentary.

The build-up to Ali v Frasier II was incredibly dramatic. The Frasier series of fights along with Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and pretty much all of the 1960s and 1970s heavy hitters were incredible. What’s My Name is like a highlight reel of some of the most exciting fights in Ali’s career and probably that era of boxing. Though watching those hits being traded, it’s ironic that Ali downplayed the possibility of brain injuries from boxing and later developed Parkinson’s Disease. That’s not to say that his Parkinson’s was caused by boxing but just that brain and other bodily injuries are a real risk.

Yet, I understood his perspective that boxing was something men with few other options did to provide for themselves and their families. He felt their concern about safety was a pretense for taking opportunities away from them. But I think the concerns around boxing and other sports, particularly contact sports, are justified especially as we learn more about the serious long-term effects of concussions on the brain. Top-tier boxers, especially in more recent decades, can earn a lot of money throughout their career. Unfortunately, a lot of boxers like other athletes go broke in retirement when they will likely need money to maintain their health and manage the long-term physical effect of their careers.

The last few fights in the film are painful to watch. It becomes increasingly noticeable that Ali has slowed down considerably since his younger days. Squaring off against opponents who are quite a bit younger and in the prime of their youth was a recipe for disaster. Often the boxing highlights focus on brutal punches and knockouts but watching the full length of Ali’s career put things in perspective. His frequent strategy of trying to wear out his opponents by standing against the ropes and absorbing hits meant he endured a great deal of punishment. This became even more dangerous when he was no longer able to quickly dodge his opponent’s punches or defend himself by quickly launching punches or his own.

A lot of athletes and entertainers don’t quite know when to retire. And continuing past a certain point whether for money, passion for their craft, wanting to hear the roar of a crowd, or not knowing what else to do with themselves can start to erode their legacy. Regardless of whatever feats might have occurred earlier in your career, you risk damaging your reputation if you start putting out trash albums, getting dusted on the court/field, or begin consistently losing fights. I understand the love of the sport but at some point enough has to be enough.

Ali’s comedic commentary was entertaining but he kicked a lot of knowledge over the years. We can’t undervalue what it meant for Ali to speak out instead of walling himself off in a gilded tower and pretending to not see what was happening in the world. I think it’s dope that Ali became more involved with global events after he “retired”. At first, it might seem crazy but it shouldn’t be beyond belief that an athlete can become a diplomat. If you think about it athletes and entertainers can become cultural ambassadors of sorts through music and sports. Think of the influence and inspiration they could wield if they had something meaningful to say beyond the typical vapid motivational coach soundbites.

Despite its 2-hour 45-minute runtime, the documentary covers Ali’s life in great detail but it’s put together in a way that keeps your attention rather than feeling like a drag. It has the perfect mix of fight footage, interviews, training clips, music, and narration. Until something better comes along, I think What’s My Name now stands as the definitive Ali film. Though there are some other great Ali documentaries out there. (The movie “Ali” has always felt lackluster to me.)

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