Originally created 01/12/00

'King of the World' movie: not the greatest



NEW YORK -- "And now, the main event."

That was the introduction to "King of the World," Monday night's ABC-TV movie about how Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.

Compared with the documentaries about Ali, this film is strictly a preliminary.

As a boxing drama, it wasn't bad, with credible fight scenes.

As a character study, it was a bit disjointed and shallow. But with less than two hours to cover a lot of ground, there wasn't nearly enough time to portray a figure as complicated as Ali.

At one point, Ali is shown being knocked down by Sonny Banks. Then, after six commercial plugs and promos for a movie and two TV shows, he is shown getting up at the count of six. Talk about a long count.

The two stars of the movie, which was based on David Remnick's book, "King of the World," and other published accounts, are Terrance Howard and Steve Harris.

Harris needs to say little in the role of Liston -- just glare and act sullen. Glaring and sullen behavior were developed into an art form by Liston, but Harris does as well as could be expected.

Howard performs capably as the brash young Clay -- Clay didn't become Ali until about a month after he beat Liston in 1964. Of course, nobody plays the fighter better than Ali himself in such documentaries as "When We Were Kings" and "Muhammad Ali, the Whole Story."

The makers of those documentaries had a huge advantage over any producer of a made-for-TV movie: Ali is a natural-born actor.

Harris does a solid job in portraying Ali apparently coming apart emotionally at the weigh-in before his heavyweight championship challenge to Liston. In real life, it was one of the greatest spur-of-the moment performances in the history of mind games.

Remnick's book covers the period from Liston's one-round knockout of Floyd Patterson in their first fight in 1962 to Ali's 12th-round technical knockout of Patterson in 1965.

The movie ends after Ali wins the title when Liston quits on his stool after sixth round at Miami Beach, Fla.

Ali's penchant for predicting the rounds he would win and for quoting corny poetry are touched on. But the movie mainly dwelled on his friendship with Malcolm X, the buildup to the Liston fight, and the fight itself.

The best scenes were those with promoter Bill MacDonald speaking to Ali three days before the Liston bout. MacDonald says reports that Ali had become a member of the Nation of Islam were hurting the match. He said the fight would be canceled unless Ali denies them. Ali refuses, knowing he might not get another shot at the title.

The fight is saved when a publicist (the late Harold Conrad) goes to Malcolm X's motel and convinces him to get out of town until the night of the fight. Malcolm complies.

The big fight scene takes place in Ali's corner after the fourth round. Something gets into Ali's eyes during the round and he is blinded. It's been argued that a substance was intentionally put on Liston's gloves, but that has never been proved.

In the corner, Ali tells trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves because he can't continue. Dundee washes the eyes and pushes Ali out for the fifth round. Ali's eyes eventually clear and he goes on to win.

The next day, Ali confirms he belongs to the Nation of Islam. He becomes Cassius X, and then on March 6 he is given the name Muhammad Ali by Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.