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Foes make Ali documentary shine

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI

Boxing remains a great sport, almost in spite of itself. Promoters demean their own product. Managers sell out their own fighters. Sanctioning bodies corrupt the rankings. Boxers cloister themselves from the media and, ultimately, their fans.

In spite of all that, we watch, enraptured, because every now and then we come across two young men to whom glory and winning mean far more than a paycheck. They bare their souls in the ring and, at times like those, there is no better sport.

The documentary film, "Facing Ali," which airs on Monday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Spike TV, provides a fascinating look at a time when boxing produced those types of events on a monthly, even a weekly, basis.

It explores the many reasons the sport is so desperate for another Muhammad Ali. The film is the story of Ali's professional career, his impact upon society and upon the lives of 10 of the men who met him in the ring.

Their stories remind us why we love boxing, why a big fight has such a gripping hold on so many people. Every fight with Ali, almost from the time he turned pro nearly 50 years ago, was a big fight.

Producer Derik Murray and director Pete McCormack do a wonderful job telling the story of how a match against Ali dramatically impacted the lives of 10 of his opponents.

Sir Henry Cooper, George Chuvalo, Ernie Terrell, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks and Larry Holmes describe their bouts with Ali as life-altering events. Many of them speak in near reverential tones about the impact their fight had upon them.

Ken Norton described a scene in which he was at a low point in his life, personally and professionally. He'd split with his wife and was raising his son by himself. He was having difficulty making ends meet. His career was stuck in neutral.

"There were times that a gourmet meal for me and my son was a hot dog," Norton said plaintively.

He called his father and asked if he could go live with him. His father declined.

As Norton recalled, his father said, "Son, if I help you now, I'll be helping you for the rest of your life. Be a man. I can't help you."

That moment, though, was hardly a downfall for Norton. He dedicated himself more to his job and, shortly after that conversation, was offered a bout with Ali. That, he said, shifted his life in a new direction.

"The first Ali fight gave me a chance to give my son more food, better clothes," Norton said. "A fight with Ali gave me a chance at life, period."

Man after man in the film expresses a similar sentiment. Frazier, Ali's oldest and longest rival, was less bitter than he has been in talking about Ali.

Lyle fought Ali only four years after turning professional following a release from prison, where he served time for a second-degree murder conviction.

He said he'd dreamed when he was in prison of fighting for the title against Ali. When he found himself in the ring in Las Vegas with Ali on May 16, 1975, it was almost surreal for him. Lyle was ahead on two of the three scorecards and even on the third after 10 rounds and on his way to winning the fight. Ali caught him with a right hand that sent him staggering back into the ropes. Ali pursued and pummeled Lyle from corner to corner. Finally, referee Fred Hernandez jumped into to stop it, giving Ali the title-retaining victory.

Lyle insists he was not hurt and complained to Hernandez about the stoppage. But 35 years later, he smiles at the memory of the fight. He doesn't worry about what might have been.

"Am I bitter? Forget about it," Lyle said. "I never took it personal. If there don't be no Ali, you think you'd be sitting here talking to Ron Lyle? About what?"

Ali's star was so big that he made celebrities of his opponents. A man became a star just by virtue of having shared the ring with him.

There is no boxer today who has nearly that kind of impact.

The documentary provides a stirring reminder of Ali's place in the world. He became the most recognized face on Earth and lifted boxing as he took the title to all corners of the world.

There is no groundbreaking news in the film. It chronicles Ali's conversion to Islam, his reaction to racism and his decision to avoid military service in Vietnam.

Those stories have been told, over and over again.

Where the film shines is in the portraits it paints of the men, some household names, others far less so, who made much of their professional reputations on Ali's back. The interviews, frequently emotional, build an intimate connection with the men, whether it was Terrell singing a song written about Ali on "The Jack Benny Show" two days before their Feb. 6, 1967, fight, or Foreman talking about his conversion to Christianity.

Shavers fought Ali on Sept. 29, 1977. He was reputedly the game's hardest puncher ever, but was lightly regarded as a boxer. Still, he pushed Ali to the 15-round limit and left the ring that night in New York believing he had won and angry about the decision.

He later watched film of the fight and realized that Ali, in fact, had deserved to win.

But winning or losing was not the point, Shavers said. It was just being considered on a level to be picked by Ali to make a new life for a boxer.

"Even though I caught him on the tail end of his career, you know, just his name's got magic, if you do well with him," Shavers said. "I couldn't have fought a better champ than Muhammad and this changed my whole life."

Clearly, no one man can do for boxing what Ali did. He was almost like a prophet, sent to raise the sport.

Collectively, though, boxing can return to that position of prominence Ali once gave it. Thirty years after he fought for the final time, the documentary "Fighting Ali" lays out a roadmap of how to fix what ails the sport.

It's a brilliant piece.

Don't miss it.