The Greatest of All Time: “Ali in Action: The Man, The Moves, The Mouth”

By on December 28, 2016

The 2012 retrospective documentary Ali in Action: The Man, The Moves, The Mouth — you’ll find it streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — puts the focus squarely on Muhammad Ali’s prowess inside the boxing ring and out, placing emphasis on both his brilliant moves (including the patented Ali Shuffle, a little fancy footwork he did before landing an unexpected blow) and his colorful rhetoric, all while helping us to remember the legendary athlete, entertainer and social activist who rightly called himself “The Greatest of All Time.”

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Ali was just one of the many celebrities who died this past year — the silver-tongued boxer and civil rights champion died on June 3, 2016, age 74, after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of both his verbal grace and his physical dexterity — but he was such a towering figure that Ali still stands out among those we lost.

This nearly hour-long documentary — which isn’t long enough to show all of the highlights in Ali’s life, or the impact he had on citizens of the world — is nevertheless a suitable introduction to an extraordinary and uniquely American hero.

“The man called Cassius Clay and then Muhammad Ali saw the world in black and white,” says narrator Burt Sugar, to a rousing and triumphant musical score, “but that’s how America was in the turbulent Sixties, when he used his mouth — and his fists — to shake up the world. As Muhammad Ali once said, if you don’t have the courage to take risks, you’ll never accomplish a thing. Ali took those risks, but he accomplished more than any man in the history of boxing.”

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Ali in Action was originally released as a companion DVD to Les Krantz’s book of the same title, and the voiceover narration here is by another noted writer, boxing authority and historian Bert Sugar, who died from cardiac arrest on March 25, 2012, age 75, a few months prior to the book/DVD being released in July 2012.

Krantz has produced many sports documentaries, along with fellow producers Jim McKay and Jim Lampley, both noted TV sports journalists (McKay died in 2008), and also runs a publishing company near Chicago, called Facts That Matter, Inc.

Over the years, this recognized sports authority has also penned many sports-related books, mostly about baseball (including Not Till the Fat Lady Sings, Dark Horses and Underdogs and Reel Baseball) and numerous articles on the significance of statistical information (for Readers Digest, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal, among others).

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Much like Krantz’s book, contains many details and highlights from inside the ring and out.

The boxing highlights include broadcast footage of most of his biggest fights, including “the Fight of the Century” (March 8, 1971), his battle with Joe Frazier (both were undefeated heavyweight champs); “the Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, Africa (October 30, 1974), where Ali used his famous “rope-a-dope” strategy to beat George Foreman and regain the title; and “the Thrilla in Manila” (October 1, 1975), the rematch bout between Ali and Frazier, two longtime prize-fight foes (Ali had predicted it would be “a thrills and a chilla and a killa when I get the gorilla in Manila”).

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Outside the ring, we’re treated to a few of Ali’s press conferences, including his occasional bouts with the blustery and obnoxious sports journalist Howard Cosell, and a recitation of Ali’s famous “Pearls of Wisdom.”

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Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, to middle-class parents, Ali started boxing when he was twelve years old, winning Golden Gloves competitions as a teenager.

There’s a nice early interview here where a young Cassius Clay talks about how he wanted to learn how to box in case he was able to confront the unfortunate soul who had stolen his bicycle.

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He brought home Olympic gold after representing the United States in the heavyweight boxing division at the 1960 Summer Olympic games in Rome, Italy.

After he was refused services at a soda fountain counter upon his return, Ali — who fought against racism his entire life — threw his Olympic gold medal into a river.

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In 1996, Ali was front and center in the Olympic spotlight once again when he carried the torch at the opening of the ’96 Olympic Games, showing visible signs of of his longtime battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

He also made another memorable appearance when he escorted the Olympic flag in the east London stadium during a spectacular opening ceremony that ushered in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games (it’s not featured in the documentary, however).

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Ali in Action also manages to show quite a few non-fight related footage too, including the time he meet the Beatles.

We also see the moment when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, and we’re told how his religious beliefs led him to vociferous opposition to the Vietnam War, which led to him being stripped of his Heavyweight Championship title in 1967, and convicted of draft evasion. Ali didn’t fight again in the United States for nearly four years.

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Ali, left, is shown conferring March 29, 1967, with Dr. Martin Luther King. King said later, “The sooner this country does away with the draft, the better off we’ll be.” Ali was here for his court suit to prevent his Army induction, April 28, 1967, in Houston, Texas. The court refused, however, to block his call-up.

Ali in Action doesn’t spend too much of its time delving into his religious conversion or his protest of Vietnam upon being drafted, however, choosing instead to focus more on his boxing (there’s also footage of his bouts with Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, killers all) and his verbal bouts outside the ring with newspaper reporters and sports journalists.

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Muhammad Ali is held back by referee Joe Walcott, left, after Ali knocked out challenger Sonny Liston in the first round of their title fight in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965.

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Here’s an excerpt from Muhammad Ali: “The Greatest” by Joyce Carol Oates (first published in ESPN Sports Century, New York: Hyperion, 1999):

No other athlete has received quite the press—accusing and adulatory, condemning and praising, seething with hatred and brimming with love—that Ali has had. From the first, as the young Cassius Clay, he seems to have determined that he would not be a passive participant in his image-making, like most athletes, but would define the terms of his public reputation.

As sport is both a mirror of human aggression and a highly controlled, “playful” acting-out of that aggression, so the public athlete is a play-figure, at his most conscious and controlled an actor in a theatrical event.

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Clay/Ali brought to the deadly-serious sport of boxing an unexpected ecstatic joy that had nothing to do with, and may in fact have been contrary to, his political/religious mission.

His temperament seems to have been fundamentally childlike; playing the trickster came naturally to him, “My corn, the gimmicks, the acting I do — it’ll take a whole lot for another fighter to ever be as popular as Muhammad Ali,” he remarked in an interview in 1975.

“The acting begins when I’m working. Before a fight, I’ll try to have something funny to say every day and I’ll talk ten miles a minute . . . I started fighting in 1954, when I was just twelve, so it’s been a long time for me now. But there’s always a new fight to look forward to, a new publicity stunt, a new reason to fight.”

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Ali in Action narrator Bert Sugar — called “The Greatest Boxing Writer of the 20th Century” by the International Veterans Boxing Association — is certainly the man you want to hear talking about Ali.

Sugar purchased Boxing Illustrated magazine in 1969 and was its editor until 1973. From 1979 to 1983, Sugar was editor and publisher of another boxing publication, The Ring. In 1988 he once again began editing Boxing Illustrated.

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The cigar-chomping Sugar authored over eighty books in his lifetime, focusing on his two favorite sports, baseball and boxing, the latter topic including titles like Great Fights, Bert Sugar on Boxing, 100 Years of Boxing, Sting like a Bee (with José Torres), The Ageless Warrior and Boxing’s Greatest Fighters.

He appeared in several films playing himself, including Night and the City, The Great White Hype and Rocky Balboa.

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Watch Ali in Action: The Man, The Moves, The Mouth on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.