The Greatest opens with 18 year-old Cassius Clay (played by Chip McAllister as a teenager and, as an adult, by Muhammad Ali himself) winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Returning home to Kentucky, Clay discovers that not even a gold medal can protect him from racism. Angered after a restaurant refuses to serve him and his friend, Clay throws his gold medal into the Ohio River. Under the training of Angelo Dundee (Ernest Borgnine), Clay turns pro and defeats Sonny Liston (Roger E. Mosley) for the heavyweight championship. Inspired by Malcolm X (James Earl Jones), Clay also joins the Nation of Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. As heavyweight champion, Ali battles not only his opponents in the ring but racism outside of it. The Greatest follows Ali as he loses his title for refusing to be drafted and concludes with the famous Rumble in the Jungle, where Ali won the title back from George Foreman.
Sadly, Muhammad Ali has never been the subject of a truly great feature film. Even Michael Mann’s Ali failed to really capture the mystique that made Ali into such an iconic figure. The Greatest is interesting because Ali plays himself. Unfortunately, The Greatest proves that Ali may have been a great showman but he was not a natural actor. You only have to watch the scene where Ali tries to hold his own with Robert Duvall to see just how stiff an actor Muhammad Ali really was. Ali’s best scenes are the ones where he is trash talking his opponents or training. The film opens with Ali jogging while George Benson sings The Greatest Love Of All, a scene that is made all the more poignant when you compare the athletic and confident Muhammad Ali of 1977 with the frail, Parkinson’s stricken Ali of today.
Instead of recreating any of Ali’s legendary fights, The Greatest instead uses actual footage of the matches. The real life footage is the best part of the film. After all these years, Ali’s fights against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman remain exciting to watch. Otherwise, The Greatest is too episodic and low budget to do justice to Muhammad Ali’s story.
If you want to see a truly great film about Ali and his legacy, watch the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, 2009’s Facing Ali or 2013’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Ali is such an iconic figure that it may be impossible for any feature film to properly do justice to his life and legacy. These three documentaries come close.
(Director Tom Gries died during the filming of The Greatest. The movie was completed by Monte Hellman.)