Upcoming HBO film looks at Muhammad Ali's most important fight

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

There are a slew of choices when it comes to selecting Muhammad Ali's greatest fight.

Some would point to his shocking 1974 upset of George Foreman in Africa as his greatest. Others would go with his 1964 win over fearsome Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title. And still others might point to the third fight with Joe Frazier, known forever as "The Thrilla in Manila," as his greatest.

HBO Films, though, may have it right. Ali's greatest fight wasn't with a boxer, it was with the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Ali was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, a hot-button topic that still engenders strong emotions on both sides of the issue more than 50 years later. In 1967, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.

Many who served and suffered the horrors of that nightmarish war will never forgive Ali for his stance. Others praise him for being instrumental in bringing the societal pressure that helped end the war.

Whatever your stance, HBO Films' latest project, "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight," is 98 minutes that are well worth your time.

The film, written by Shawn Slovo and directed by Stephen Frears, focuses on the internal battles the nine Supreme Court justices had in deciding Ali's appeal of his 1967 conviction. It debuts on HBO on Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET.

Many books and movies have been done about Ali's extraordinary life and career, but this film tackles a crucial part of his career that has frequently been overlooked.

"Ali's whole career, he was first to do a lot of this stuff and no one had seen this before. The whole world was trying to catch up with him," Len Amato, the president of HBO Films told Yahoo Sports. "It was incredibly significant and also misunderstood to a certain extent to have a boxer say, 'I'm a conscientious objector.' … This is a moment in time that I think transcended who Ali is.

"I think it's a reason why he stands head and shoulders above a lot of sports figures and is vital to this day. He stepped out of the sports arena and, whether you agree with him or not, made a social statement when social statements really counted."

The movie stars Christopher Plummer as Supreme Court Justice John Harlan II and Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren Burger.

Interesting, though, no actor was cast as Ali. There is so much archival footage of Ali that filmmakers opted to use it rather than give an actor the unenviable task of portraying Ali.

"Any chance he got, Ali was talking about why he believed in what he believed, why he refused to fight," Slovo said. "So we have this brilliant archive footage, and once you see it, you think, 'There is absolutely no point in trying to find an actor to portray this man.' "

Much of the film focuses on the deliberations among the justices and touches on the impact a young law clerk had on the way Justice Harlan changed his view.

It is a movie about a boxing figure, but it is not a boxing movie, though anyone who has followed Ali's career will love it.

It tells a little-known angle of Ali's life story and does so with depth, passion and understanding.

It's riveting and holds your attention until the dramatic conclusion, and the scenes with Ali in it blend in perfectly.

It's a must-watch for anyone with even a little bit of interest in Ali's life and career.

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