Muhammad Ali was as gifted in communicating with his mouth as his fists, making him a prime candidate for an expansive documentary like “What’s My Name / Muhammad Ali,” HBO’s two-part exploration of his life and career. It’s highly watchable, even if director Antoine Fuqua’s strict reliance on archival material to tell the story somewhat blunts its punch.
The rich trove of material of Ali – from his days as a fresh-faced amateur named Cassius Clay through his twilight years, when he was tragically silenced by Parkinson’s disease – makes him a better candidate for this sort of treatment (airing back to back, the two parts run nearly three hours) than almost anyone. What’s missing, though, are the third-party voices that could help contextualize his remarkable life, a stylistic shortcoming that explains why “What’s My Name” scores fewer points than it otherwise might.
The one thing that comes through loud and clear throughout hinges on Ali’s ebullient personality outside the ring, and intuitive talent as a marketing pitchman. From dubbing himself “The Greatest” to his pithy nicknames for his opponents and fights, the boxer brought a level of showmanship to the sport that has seldom been witnessed among athletes before or since.
The documentary proceeds along a chronological course, charting Ali’s stunning defeat of Sonny Liston, his period as heavyweight champion and his conversion to Islam, with all the political fallout that engendered. The narrative then proceeds to his refusal to serve during the Vietnam War, his imprisonment and his comeback, including his bruising fights with Joe Frazier and rope-a-dope victory over a seemingly unbeatable George Foreman.
The fight footage, not surprisingly, is plentiful, but won’t come as much of a revelation to students of Ali’s career. The most entertainment bits thus become Ali’s Interviews with the likes of Dinah Shore, Steve Allen, Dick Cavett and of course Howard Cosell, whose flamboyant style provided the champ with the perfect foil, and Cosell with a sports figure worthy of all that hyperbole.
The second part of “What’s My Name,” perhaps inevitably, turns attention to Ali’s decision to continue fighting even as his skills dulled. He’s shown laughing off questions about the lingering, irreversible damage that he might experience from enduring all those blows, telling “60 Minutes’” Ed Bradley that he doesn’t want people to say, “Poor Ali, he fought too long.”
Yet the evidence of that reality appears unavoidable, and the uplifting material toward the end – singling out Ali’s charitable endeavors – can’t offset the melancholy aspect in seeing footage of Ali’s light dimmed so dramatically before his death in 2016.
Produced by, among others, NBA superstar LeBron James, this HBO Sports presentation was obviously made with a tremendous amount of affection for Ali and care for his legacy. He was, indeed, the greatest, and while “What’s My Name” clearly portrays those qualities, as constructed, it’s merely pretty good.
“What’s My Name / Muhammad Ali” will air May 14 at 8 p.m. on HBO. CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.