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Better Than the Movie
Rick Reilly
December 24, 2001
Went to see Ali the other day. Not the movie, the man.
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December 24, 2001

Better Than The Movie

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Went to see Ali the other day. Not the movie, the man.

The movie Ali, with Will Smith as a hauntingly real Muhammad Ali, opens Christmas Day. The man Ali was slumped on a couch in Suite 319 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel, trying to apply jelly to a bagel with that paint shaker of a right arm and guide it into his mouth. Yeah, Parkinson's is a diet you never want to try.

Jelly, though, is good because the sugar gets Ali's mind buzzing. I could see it in his eyes. I wouldn't need to sneak him the Snickers I'd brought in my pocket.

To many Americans, Ali is woven into a time when Vietnam, civil rights and black power dominated their lives. No wonder Will Smith broke his back (actually, a thumb) trying to nail Ali. He studied Islam each day. Trained as a boxer for a year. Refused stunt doubles. Listened to countless Ali tapes. Between shoots he even wore a mold that kept his ears from sticking out so much when he was on camera.

Smith was so Ali that the champ's wife, Lonnie, would get the actor on the phone just so she and Ali could hear him do Ali and be sent back to a place where they can no longer go. "Funny...feeling," Ali says, with three-second pauses. "Hearin' yourself...30 years ago."

Had Hollywood finally found somebody pretty enough to play him? I asked.

"Can't...do it.... Can't nobody...do that."

The world sees the trembling and the awful new Ali Shuffle, and feels sorry for the champ. Don't be. His mind is still bright. He still composes poetry nearly every day. He still studies the Koran and the Bible. Ali isn't alive only at your local Odoplex 24. He's still here, in the whispers.

If you introduce Ali to your wife, he will draw her ear close to his lips and say, "You married him?" If you're seated next to him at a banquet when the crowd of 1,000 rises to its feet and chants his name, he'll whisper for only you to hear, "Just another nā€”ā€”-." His light jab at the racism he knew as a young man.

Ali has never been afraid to be himself, which is the point in Ali, a movie that moves at the speed of an ice floe. You could hand-weave a Howard Cosell toupee in the time it takes Ali to fight George Foreman in the film. How can a movie be three hours long and say almost nothing?

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