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Movie Reviews : All the Ring's Men in 'Champions Forever'

September 23, 1989|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Muhammad Ali's mouth creases in a patriarchal smile. Joe Frazier--in gold chain and open white shirt--glares, shifts restlessly in his seat. Ken Norton speaks raspily, peeks up from under a Gold's Gym cap. George Foreman, looking like a kindly uncle, oozes tolerance. Off in the corner, Larry Holmes stays quiet, like a cocky kid who doesn't want center stage.

These are the champs of "Champions Forever" (at the AMC Century 14), an engaging documentary that brings together the five world heavyweight boxing kings whose reigns overlapped from 1964 to 1985. Seated in lounge chairs in Johnny Tocco's Las Vegas Gymnasium, interviewed by a studious-looking Reggie Jackson while clips of their triumphs run by, the fearsome fivesome relax into a session of reminiscence and (one of Howard Cosell's words) badinage.

Their postures are friendly. Free of the pressures of combat, they emerge as an unlikely mutual admiration society: old warriors respectful of each other's skills and guts, united in memories of glories now past, battles now over.

Initially, director Dimitri Logothetis' film, transferred from video and Times-rated Family, seems headed toward over-reverence. Heavenly choirs intone as Holmes, in slow motion, moves toward a final rendezvous with Mike Tyson: the end, we are reminded, of an era. More specifically, the end of the era of Ali, the most charismatic sports figure of the TV generation. Three of the men sitting here defeated him in the ring at least once. One of them, Foreman, lost, and, perhaps wisely, was never granted a rematch.

Yet, it is Ali--even, at age 47, slowed down, his voice a mellow husk of its former wild braggadocio--who remains the movie's center, its star. Far removed from the brash, clownishly bold young Cassius Clay of the '60s, he's a man of slow talk today, content to float like a drowsy bee, and sting, verbally, like a butterfly--though not, he insists, because of Parkinson's disease.

The others defer to him, pay tribute to his central position not just in boxing but in American and black culture. Even the resentful Frazier, who seems still to wince under the assault of Ali's gibes in their heyday ("It'll be a thrillah and a killah when I get the gorilla in Manila!"), joins in the applause.

Of the five, surprisingly, it's George Foreman--whom Ali defeated for the title in 1974 and who quit boxing for 10 years to pursue a Christian ministry--who comes off most impressively. Foreman speaks appreciatively of his old foes, never expresses any bitterness and says he wishes to be remembered not as the "greatest" but as a good boxer: an understatement considering his pre-1977 record of 42 knockouts in 47 fights.

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