Eig, the biographer, shared a huge amount of contacts with the filmmakers and they started their first interviews in 2016, a week after Ali died. Dozens of writers, friends and boxing ambassadors took part: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Holmes, Jesse Jackson, the novelist Walter Mosley, the ESPN writer Howard Bryant, the boxing promoter Don King. Over the following years, the filmmakers dug up more than 15,000 photographs and unearthed footage that had not been seen publicly. A production company that had shot the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali’s third and final fight with Joe Frazier, in the Philippines, folded before the film could be used. Their images were buried in an archive in Pennsylvania.
“This woman took out these boxes and said, ‘They say ‘Ali’ on them — I don’t know what they are,” said McMahon. “This is Technicolor, it’s 16 millimeters, shot from the platform [of the ring] – it just pops. And you see the fight in ways never seen before.
Ali’s relationship with Frazier, who was one of Ali’s fans as a young fighter, is one of the more thorny aspects of the documentary. Ali’s treatment of him before their fights was quite brutal, using some of the language of “racist white people,” as one commentator on the series puts it, to denigrate Frazier (who never forgave him). It’s part of the complex image of Ali that the series offers: a people’s champion who can be petty; a devout Muslim who was a serial womanizer; an idealist who angered many people 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 everyone out there, if they’re protesting something, if they say something, if they get some sort of sanction, they put them in the same category as Muhammad Ali or Jackie Robinson,” he continued. “And it’s just such nonsense.”
“Call me another athlete where the full weight of the United States government came down to one person. I’m not talking about the NFL saying you can’t play when you’re already a millionaire. Colin Kaepernick has clearly sacrificed some and what lost. It’s not the same. It’s not even close.”