William Greaves and The Fight: A Curator’s Notes
by Steve Macfarlane
In 2018, a celebrity steps outdoors wearing a new brand of sunglasses and the internet calls it iconic - but it only takes a few seconds of archival footage to confirm that Muhammad Ali was that rare real deal. Ali only has one proper acting credit to his name, starring in the little-seen 1979 TV movie Freedom Road, where he plays a fictional slave who becomes an abolitionist senator. Yet Ali was always performing: his lightning magnetism made him a star of the silver screen without exiting the realm of nonfiction. Of course his boxing career yielded dozens of documentaries, some of them by the biggest names in the business - yet William Greaves’ The Fight, chronicling Ali’s attempt to regain his World Heavyweight Championship title from the incumbent Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden on March 8th, 1971, is among the most crucial and least famous. (It’s worth pointing out the African American Film Festival is screening Greaves’ 126-minute director’s cut, never made available on home video or for wide theatrical release.) Of his larger-than-life subject, Greaves wrote that “Ali is the only living ring performer who can command an audience of close to half a billion people all over the world. He is a whole drama in himself.”
The Fight’s investors were a consortium of Hollywood celebrities working with promoter Jerry Perenchio (who features heavily in Greaves’ film, even avowing onscreen that he doesn’t know the first thing about boxing.) Greaves would later write that “Within a week of signing the contract, we had camera crews shuttling about the country and in Europe covering all the pre-fight events.” Greaves had in fact been an amateur boxer in his younger years, before becoming an independent filmmaker who would go on to win an Emmy as executive producer of Black Journal, the first African American-produced nationally broadcast series on television. In addition to being a filmmaker of color following Ali (a rarity in those days), he was also a lifelong thinker about the conventional role of media. His last film before The Fight was 1968's Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, about the making and unmaking of a short film in Central Park, a project which perhaps inevitably spirals out of control. Greaves plays a version of himself as auteur, while the cameras are turned on a cast and crew - struggling to keep the thread of Greaves’ idea, unsure whether they’ve been tricked into participating in a normal shoot or in fact an inside-out head trip of a documentary.
The stakes for Frazier-Ali 1 could not have been higher. It was Ali’s return to the ring after being barred for four years after his refusal to serve in Vietnam, the source of his (again, iconic) declaration that “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” Both fighters had legitimate claims to their championships, but because Ali had been suspended for political reasons, he had to challenge Frazier in front of the entire world. The fight also became a referendum on two different styles of boxing which can be boiled down, crudely, to the difference between Ali’s “dancing” versus Frazier’s dynamite left hook. Jim Jacobs, a lifelong boxing expert, manager, collector and documentarian, appears in Greaves’ film measuring the speed of Ali’s jabs in the number of film frames they take up, and identifies Ali as the fastest fighter he’s ever committed to film - whereas when Frazier throws a punch at you, “he wants to kill you.” Greaves’ film is unabashedly set in the present-tense, without voice-over narration - but it’s hard to miss the point when Greaves captures white Frazier fans decrying Ali as a load of hot air and refusing to call him by his chosen Muslim name, tellingly identifying him as “Cassius Clay” years after the change.
The Fight is a document of a boxing match, sure, but also a dossier of the spectacle surrounding it: Greaves captures the press conferences turned into performance-art pieces by Ali, the fighters’ entourages in Miami and Philadelphia, the money men, the publicity stunts, the endless phone calls, the prepping of the arena, the rolling tape in the broadcast booth, the celebrities inside and of course the shrieking fans (and dissenters) on the street outside. (At one point, after bellowing one of his famous couplets, Ali exits screen left - at which point the camera freezes on the face of a pasty chef in his twenties, adorned in his white a uniform complete with an over-the-top chef cap. Cue music.) It’s crucial to remember that the match was also the first of its scale to be broadcast on closed-circuit TV, unavailable to a huge audience of boxing fanatics. During a press conference, Jack Kent Cooke - the silver-tongued sports magnate who put up a $5 million purse for the two combatants to split evenly - is asked if he’s disturbed that a great many people can’t afford the price of a ticket, and can’t hear it on the radio. “I’d like everyone to drive a Cadillac,” he testily replies. “I’d like everyone to be employed, I’d like every little boy and girl not to be crippled with any kind of disease… But we cannot have anything perfect in this imperfect world!”
The joviality of the film's first half is no accident, but it’s also a consequence of the mayhem engendered by its two headliners - with Ali in his usual rare form, daring Frazier’s cousins to tell him he’ll lose to the heavyweight, and using a golf cart to outrun the filmmakers. (Decades later, Louise Greaves explained to me that Ali had signed a contract allowing Greaves and his men to follow him with their 16mm cameras, before going to great length engaging them in maddening games of cat-and-mouse.) One of the wildest moments is a phone call between Ali and Frazier, at their respective gyms: the delay in trash-talk, and the stiltedness of Frazier’s performance, betray that this scene is in fact staged, not just for Greaves and his crew but, indeed for the press at large, which appears from start to finish a swarming mob, devouring the combatants’ every last move. Yet once the film moves on to the match itself, all these peripheral characters and battles dissolve into deep background.
The Fight shows Ali-Frazier 1 in total, shot from twelve simultaneous camera angles, a godlike perspective on every last blow. (“Not even the judges could have seen the fight the way the cameras did,” Greaves said later.) The zooms on Ali grappling with Frazier become claustrophobic as the sound mix privies the roaring audience. Everything thrilling about the match (and about boxing in general) becomes harrowing over the course of fifteen long rounds, as Ali’s taunts and feints slowly give way to the slow suspicion that Frazier’s punches are landing harder - or, as one elderly British man prophetically told the cameras outside, “A two-handed fighter will always beat a good boxer.” (The Fight also bears out Jacob’s earlier warning that Ali was a “safety first” fighter who throws punches to buy time.) What ensues is a unanimous loss for Ali, albeit one that verifies the post-game musing by Burt Lancaster (who factors frequently into Greaves’ film, as he relished doing color commentary for the fight’s broadcast) that Ali-Frazier 1 served as proof of Ali’s courage in taking a physical beating to regain his championship.
While this footage would become the record of the “Fight of the Century”, the producers had initially hoped Greaves could turn his edit around overnight, for theatrical distribution. Instead, his notes to his son and assistant editor David suggest a film that’s epic in scope, painstakingly constructed in the editing room, to a “script” developed after Greaves had taken stock of hundreds of hours of material. A cut-down version was given a paltry 1974 release as The Fighters. Greaves' backers lost interest and the film was misidentified for years thereafter, the director’s cut languishing in Greaves’ personal archives before a 1991 Brooklyn Museum retrospective of Greaves’ work. (For home projection purposes, excerpts of Greaves’ fight footage were made available on 8mm within days - and copies of that reel, titled The Fight Of The Champions, still surface on eBay from time to time.) Hopefully this screening serves as the first of many in restoring The Fight to its rightful place in both cinema and sports history: the endurance displayed by Ali is a sad foreshadowing of his ill-advised later bouts and subsequent afflictions with Parkinson’s. It also proves that the Louisville Lip’s cruel bluster was more tactical than anything else, as he conceded he was no longer “The Champ” after the fight; both Frazier and Ali speak generously about each other from their bruised, battered, exhausted post-mortem press conferences. But who really won the fight? The only person to have analyzed the footage from all twelve camera angles, Greaves would note that actually, Ali landed 680 clear punches versus Frazier’s 330, effectively rendering the fight a draw “if not an Ali victory - but that’s another story.”
Steve Macfarlane is a writer and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, The White Review, Filmmaker Magazine, and the Brooklyn Rail, among others.