Eig, the biographer, shared a huge trove of contacts with the filmmakers, and they started their initial interviews in 2016, a week after Ali died. Dozens of writers, friends and boxing ambassadors participated: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Holmes, Jesse Jackson, the novelist Walter Mosley, the ESPN writer Howard Bryant, the boxing promoter Don King. Over the next several years, the filmmakers unearthed more than 15,000 photographs and dug up footage that had not been seen publicly. A production company that had shot the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali’s third and final bout with Joe Frazier, in the Philippines, had folded before the film could be used. Their footage was buried in a Pennsylvania archive.
“This woman pulled these boxes out and said, ‘They say “Ali” on them — I don’t know what they are,’” McMahon said. “This is Technicolor, it’s 16-millimeter, shot from the apron [of the ring] — it just pops. And you see the fight in ways that had never been seen before.”
Ali’s relationship with Frazier, who as a young fighter had been one of Ali’s fans, is one of the thornier aspects of the documentary. Ali’s treatment of him before their fights was quite cruel, employing some of the language of “racist white people,” as one commentator in the series says, to denigrate Frazier (who never forgave him). It’s part of the complex picture of Ali that the series provides: a people’s champion who could be petty; a devout Muslim who was a serial philanderer; an idealist who made a lot of people angry with his refusal to conform to public expectations.
Bryant, the ESPN writer, said he didn’t think “people understand why this story is so heroic and so important and so unique.”
“We just seem to think that every person out there, if they protest something, if they say something, if they face some sort of sanction, we put them in the same category as Muhammad Ali or Jackie Robinson,” he continued. “And it’s just such nonsense.”
“Name me another athlete where the full weight of the United States government came down on one person. I’m not talking about the N.F.L. saying you can’t play when you’re already a millionaire. Colin Kaepernick obviously sacrificed and lost some things. It’s not the same thing. It’s not even close.”