Someone called him the Elvis of sport because he was a crossover pioneer, sexy and gorgeous, who forced the public to rethink its view of his form of entertainment. There was more to Muhammad Ali than his amazing cunning in the ring, more than his reputation as the most charming showboater in boxing history, with an impish rhyming wit that had the power of both butterfly and bee. Ali’s religious conversion, in which he joined the Black Muslims, tested white America’s fondness for him. His refusal to serve in the Army made him the Vietnam War’s most famous conscientious objector and deprived him of work for three years at the peak of his craft. Then Ali returned to lose the heavyweight belt to Joe Frazier. Leon Gast’s enthralling documentary, finally completed 20 years after the event, details the next step in Ali’s career: Act III of a great and poignant pageant. This was the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 fight with George Foreman in Zaïre.
Promoter Don King and writers Norman Mailer and George Plimpton are on hand to offer bombast and insights. But Ali’s charisma makes the film. A preacher whose fans are his congregation, he hectors in poetry: “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned/ Just wait till I kick Foreman’s behind.” Two other characters hover over the film: the Foreman and Ali of today. One became a preacher and found a rich comic voice that eventually made him an endearing figure, with the grills and all those sons named George. The other is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, his grace palsied, his old raffish rhetoric muted. When We Were Kings restores Ali to his prime — when an athlete could be a renegade hero, not of the self but of the soul.