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Ali movie no match for the real man

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The hardest history to recreate accurately on the big screen is recent history, mainly because it is so recent.

Case in point: the new movie "Ali," Hollywood's portrayal of the rise, fall and rise of Cassius Clay-turned-Muhammad Ali's boxing career, circa 1964-1974.

You can't fault the movie for trying. Movies don't come out slugging any harder than "Ali." Will Smith trained for a year and put on 30 pounds to deliver a terrific impersonation of the world's most famous boxer and Jon Voight studied the life, not just the voice, of Howard Cosell, to set up a rather believable impersonation of Ali's alter-ego.

The problem is, Smith and Voight are not Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell; and there are way too many of us still alive — including Muhammad Ali — who know the difference.

It's been a rough year for would-be blockbusters. "Pearl Harbor" was no "Titanic." "A.I." was no "E.T." And "Ali" is no "When We Were Kings."

"When We Were Kings" is the 1996 award-winning documentary about the "Rumble in the Jungle" championship bout between George Foreman and Ali in Zaire. The documentary uses actual footage of Ali's royal welcome in Kinshasa and shows videotape of the successful rope-a-dope tactics by Ali in perhaps the most legendary boxing match of all time.

Despite accomplished actors, expert boxing technicians, clever camera angles and plenty of back-lighting to re-create the Rumble in the Jungle, Hollywood is really no match for, as the toupee-wearing Cosell liked to say, "telling it like it is." Or was.

For that matter, nothing on videotape is a match for "King of the World," David Remnick's riveting book on a young, Sonny Liston-whupping Ali that was released five years ago. To properly set a scene, there is really no alternative for the depth of the printed word. As much as technology keeps expanding, the biggest screen is still in the library.

But the real gaffe in "Ali," in my book anyway, is the movie's failure to portray Muhammad Ali as a person the world couldn't help but love. A Marilyn Monroe in 16-ounce gloves.

No matter what he did — dodge the draft, join a militant religion, cheat on his wives, change his name — Ali remained king of the world. He was the ultimate showman.

In the end, it was what proved his undoing — he couldn't bear to retire and the adoring masses, not wanting to be left to the clutches of Don King, the Spinks brothers and Larry Holmes, couldn't bear to let him. Nobody wanted him to stop (which is more than you can say for the movie).

So he kept on punching, eventually losing his title, his looks, his poetry — and the ability to come back from pretty much anything — to a faceless disease brought on, in his case, by way too many blows to the head. The rope-a-dope giveth, the rope-a-dope taketh away.

With his body trapped by Parkinson's Syndrome, the 59-year-old Ali saw the premiere of "Ali" three weeks ago and reportedly gave the movie a thumbs-up.

He said Smith imitated his boxing style fairly well and, more importantly, was almost as pretty.

But in contrast to the old days, his words were few; mostly he just nodded and smiled, more aware than any of us — I'm guessing — that there will always be just one Ali.

And it isn't Will Smith.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.