Boxing movies highly praised

MURRAY GREIG, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:31 AM ET

It's a toss-up as to which is more compelling: Mike Tyson candidly discussing the "wretched swine of a woman" who charged him with rape, or Muhammad Ali quietly reminiscing about being the guest speaker at a secret Ku Klux Klan meeting where other participants "joked" about lynching him.

Those are just a couple of the highlights in Tyson and Thrilla in Manila, two new DVD releases that rank right up there with the 1996 Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings as the most riveting boxing documentaries ever made.

Tyson, which was released earlier this week, is hands-down the rawest -- and best -- portrait of the former Baddest Man in the Universe ever captured on celluloid, thanks mostly to director James Toback's "less is better" approach to filmmaking.

This isn't a question-and-answer doc, and ring footage of Tyson's 15-year rampage through the pop-culture mainstream is used sparingly. For the most part, all we get is Leg-Iron Mike speaking directly to the camera in stream-of-consciousness soliloquies.

UNSCRIPTED

The 90-minute film was shot in five days late last year, and except for one oddly chilling 45-second segment where Tyson recites Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Redding Jail while walking on a moonlit beach, it's entirely unscripted. There's plenty of profanity, no shortage of mixed metaphors and twisted logic -- but that's the genius of Toback's work.

In the end, whether it's Tyson talking about his rape conviction, his drug addiction, biting Evander Holyfield's ears or blowing $400 million, it's a train wreck that's impossible not to watch. Love him or hate him, the film casts the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history in a new light that's at once both withering and wondrous.

Best of all, it's left to the viewer to make the final judgment.

There's no such ambiguity in Thrilla in Manila, produced and directed by John Dower earlier this year. It's the story behind Act III of the Ali-Frazier trilogy, which in 1975 became the single most watched event in human history (1.2 billion viewers worldwide, compared to 750 million for the 1969 moon landing).

What separates Dower's treatment from earlier documentaries about this fight is that it's told almost exclusively from the perspective of Smokin' Joe Frazier. As such, the actual bout becomes a mere subplot to the racial and religious differences between the two principals that eventually brought them into that steamy ring in Manila.

As good as Thrilla is at framing the fight as an allegorical symbol of some of the more sinister and unsavoury undercurrents of the early '70s -- including Ali's dalliance with the Klan and his unrelenting race-baiting of Frazier -- the end result is unsatisfying.

FEEL FOR FRAZIER

Yes, you feel sorry for Frazier, who continues to wear his bitterness like an open wound 35 years later. But you also want to smack him for letting it fester to the point where it now completely dominates one of the greatest legacies in heavyweight history.

When his son Marvis talks about Frazier "hoping that Ali would fall into the flames" when he lit the Olympic torch in 1996, it's difficult not to wince and say, "Let it go, Joe."

Sadly, it's looking more and more like that will never happen. Frazier and Ali are in their mid-sixties now, and both are coming to grips with major health issues.

Over the years, Ali has tried several times to patch things up, but Frazier can't seem to shed the image of "The Greatest" smacking around a rubber gorilla in front of the worldwide media while exhorting: "It'll be a chilla and a killa and a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila!"

Smokin' Joe should be remembered for more than that.


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