Muhammad And Larry Doc of the Week

Muhammad And Larry

Showing as part of a series of programmes to commemorate Muhammad Ali on the second anniversary of his passing, this fascinating documentary chronicles the build-up to his fight with Larry Holmes in October 1980 as the three-time champion attempted to win the world heavyweight boxing title for a record fourth time. BT Sport 1, Sun, June 3rd 19.30

Part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Muhammad and Larry was directed by award-winning documentarian Albert Maysles who is best known for Gimme Shelter, a no-holds-barred record of the Rolling Stones’ controversial tour of the USA in 1969 that culminated in the tragic events at Altamont.

Filmed eleven years later, Muhammad and Larry is an at times harrowing account of the build-up and immediate aftermath of a fight that should never have been allowed to take place. Indeed, the archive footage Maysles shot sat on the shelf for almost 30 years because nobody wanted to see it. It was finally released more than three decades after the fact and, now interspersed with recent interviews with many of the protagonists, paints a vivid picture of a tragedy waiting to happen.

The conventional wisdom at the time is that Maysles was unable to find a buyer due to the ‘surprise’ result of the fight. But that’s just a polite way of saying that nobody wanted to bear witness to the dismantling of a legend, the demolition of the greatest sporting icon of the 20th century. It is a scenario too terrible to contemplate – better to pretend it never happened.

The fact that Holmes, the 31-year-old reigning champion who had successfully defended his title seven times up to that point, managed to beat a 38-year-old former champion who hadn’t fought in over two years, was clearly past his best and was already showing early signs of the Parkinson’s Disease that would soon engulf his body was surely no ‘surprise’. The sad fact is that, in the build-up to the fight, apparently everyone but Ali already knew it.

Close friends

Holmes and Ali were former sparring partners and close friends. Holmes did not want to take the fight but Ali’s shadow loomed large over his heavyweight crown, with critics suggesting that he would never truly be the champ until he had beaten ‘The Greatest’. For his part, Ali needed the money. He had nothing left to prove, but the fight purse was $8m and he was deep in debt at the time.

The build-up to the bout saw Holmes working hard in the gym, always confident of the result. He comes across as affable and likeable with an obvious respect and affection for his illustrious opponent. Ali, meanwhile, is all box office. He plays to the cameras and trash-talks the reigning champion. Whether he was trying to convince the world or just himself that he still had it is unclear, but his boasts ring hollow when you know what was to follow. You get the feeling that those closest to him should have known better and persuaded him not to take the fight, but they didn’t or couldn’t. Perhaps the thought of a final payday was difficult to resist – who knows?


Ali had taken the world by storm when he defeated Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight title back in February 1964. A larger than life character, he declared himself ‘The Greatest’, the difference being that he had all the moves and could back it up in the ring. He was stripped of his title in 1967 for refusing the draft, but returned three-and-a-half years later and eventually regained the crown by beating George Foreman in the celebrated ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire in 1974.

There followed bruising encounters with old rivals Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, the only fighters who had ever beaten him up to that point, before he lost and regained the title for an unprecedented third time against Leon Spinks in 1978.

That was his last fight before the Holmes bout. His legend was secure, but he had taken a lot of punishment along the way and, almost 17 years after he had first won the title, it was beginning to show. The fight was stopped after ten rounds of the scheduled 15, the only time Ali had lost inside the distance in 60 fights.

He fought again the following year and lost that too. It marked a sad end to a glorious career and his sad physical decline was played out in public thereafter. So, perhaps the abiding message of this piece is that time and tide wait for no man, not even for ‘The Greatest’.

Pictures: Getty Images

There are plenty of great documentaries to watch out for on the eir sport pack every week. From football to golf, GAA, rugby, athletics and beyond, we’ve got something for everyone. Watch out next week for another fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sporting world or go to for more sports news and stories or to find out more about how we're setting sport free.

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