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Ali (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Mann
Screenplay by
Story byGregory Allen Howard
Produced by
CinematographyEmmanuel Lubezki
Edited by
Music by
Distributed by
Release date
  • December 25, 2001 (2001-12-25)
Running time
159 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$107–118 million[1][2]
Box office$87.7 million[1]

Ali is a 2001 American biographical sports drama film co-written, produced and directed by Michael Mann. The film focuses on ten years in the life of the boxer Muhammad Ali, played by Will Smith, from 1964 to 1974, featuring his capture of the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, his conversion to Islam, criticism of the Vietnam War, and banishment from boxing, his return to fight Joe Frazier in 1971, and, finally, his reclaiming the title from George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle fight of 1974. It also touches on the great social and political upheaval in the United States following the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

The project began in 1992 when producer Paul Ardaji optioned the movie rights to Muhammad Ali's life story. In 1992, Ardaji had visited Ali on his 50th birthday and persuaded him to allow a film to be made about his life. Nearing the end of his option period, Ardaji signed a contract with Sony Pictures, joining forces with producer Jon Peters as producing partner. In February 2000, it was announced that Mann had taken over as a director, following his Academy Award nomination for The Insider. Filming began in Los Angeles on January 11, 2001, on a $105 million budget, shooting took place in New York City, Chicago, Miami, and Mozambique.

Ali was well received by critics, but was a box-office bomb, grossing just $87 million against a production budget of approximately $118 million. Will Smith and Jon Voight received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.


The film begins with Cassius Clay Jr. before his championship debut against the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Clay taunts Liston, then dominates the early rounds of the match. Halfway through, he complains of a burning feeling in his eyes (implying that Liston has tried to cheat) and says he is unable to continue. His trainer/manager Angelo Dundee gets him to keep fighting. Once Clay is able to see again, he dominates the fight and Liston quits before round seven, making Clay the second-youngest heavyweight champion at the time after Floyd Patterson.

Clay spends time with Malcolm X and is invited to the home of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, where he is given the name Muhammad Ali. His father, Cassius Clay Sr., disapproves. Ali marries Sonji Roi, an ex-Playboy Bunny, although she is not Muslim and does not abide sex segregation. Ali goes to Africa and meets up with Malcolm X, but later refuses to speak to him, honoring the wishes of Elijah Muhammad. He is distraught over the assassination of Malcolm X.

Upon returning to America, Ali fights Sonny Liston a second time and knocks him out in the first round. He and Sonji divorce after she objects to various obligations Muslim women have.[3]

Ali refuses conscription for the Vietnam War and is stripped of his boxing license, passport and title, and sentenced to five years in prison. Ali marries 17-year-old Belinda Boyd. After a three-year hiatus, his conviction is overturned in Clay v. United States and in his comeback fight, he goes against Jerry Quarry and wins by technical knockout in three rounds. Ali attempts to regain the heavyweight championship against Joe Frazier. In the "Fight of the Century", Frazier generally has the upper hand against Ali and wins by decision, the first loss of Ali's career. Frazier later loses the championship to George Foreman.

Foreman and Ali go to Kinshasa, Zaire, for the Rumble in the Jungle fight. There, Ali meets Veronica Porché and has an affair with her. After reading rumors of his infidelity in newspapers, his wife Belinda travels to Zaire to confront him. Ali says he is unsure whether he loves Veronica, but is focused solely on his upcoming title shot.

For a good portion of the fight against Foreman, Ali leans back against the ropes (Rope-a-dope) allowing Foreman to tire himself out. He then knocks out the exhausted Foreman, regaining the Heavyweight Championship.



The project began in 1992 when producer Paul Ardaji optioned the movie rights to Muhammad Ali's life story. In 1992, Ardaji had visited Ali on his 50th birthday and persuaded him to allow a film to be made about his life.[4] Nearing the end of his option period, Ardaji signed a contract with Sony Pictures, joining forces with producer Jon Peters as producing partner. Producer Jon Peters started developing the film in 1994.[5] Gregory Allen Howard wrote the initial draft of the script, which had the working title Power and Grace. Howard's draft focused on Ali's life from 12 to 40 years old, and his relationship with his father.[6] Howard was replaced by writers Stephen J. Rivele and Chris Wilkinson, and by 1998 the biopic was set up at Columbia Pictures, with Will Smith attached to star and the possibility of Ron Howard directing.[7] During the filming of Wild Wild West, Smith presented director Barry Sonnenfeld with the script. Columbia was hoping for filming to start towards the end of 1998,[8] but it was pushed back, and Sonnenfeld exited in November 1999. It was speculated the Columbia was hesitant to move forward with Sonnenfeld following the disappointing box office performance of Wild Wild West.[9] In February 2000, it was announced that Michael Mann had taken over as director, following his Academy Award nomination for The Insider. Prior to Mann's involvement, Spike Lee had been in negotiations to direct the film, feeling that only a black man could do justice to Ali's story.[10] Smith, however, preferred Mann, who turned down the opportunity to direct early versions of The Aviator, Shooter and Savages to commit to Ali,[11] and brought Eric Roth on to co-write the script.[12] After years of being attached to the Ali biopic, Smith officially signed on in May 2000 with a $20 million salary.[13]

Filming began in Los Angeles on January 11, 2001, on a $105 million budget. Shooting also took place in New York City, Chicago, Miami and Mozambique.[14]

Smith spent about one year learning about Ali's life. These included boxing training (up to seven hours a day), Islamic studies with Wiljah Akbar and dialect training. Smith has said that his portrayal of Ali is his proudest work to date.[citation needed]

One of the selling points of the film is the realism of the fight scenes. Smith worked alongside boxing promoter Guy Sharpe from SharpeShooter Entertainment, and his lead fighter Ross Kent, to get the majority of his boxing tips for the film. All of the boxers in the film are former or current world heavyweight championship caliber boxers. It was quickly decided that 'Hollywood fighting'—passing the fist (or foot) between the camera and the face to create the illusion of a hit—would not be used in favor of actual boxing. The only limitation placed upon the fighters was for Charles Shufford (who plays George Foreman). He was permitted to hit Smith as hard as he could, so long as he did not actually knock the actor out.

Smith had to gain weight to look the part of Muhammad Ali.[15]


Box office[edit]

Ali opened on December 25, 2001, and grossed a total of $14.7 million in 2,446 theaters during its opening weekend. The film went on to gross a total of $87.7 million worldwide.[1]

Due to its high production and marketing costs, the film ended up losing Columbia Pictures as much as $100 million.[2] The film's failure was partly due to its competition with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.[citation needed]

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 68% based on 156 reviews, with an average rating of 6.30/10. The site's critics consensus: "Though perhaps no film could fully do justice to the fascinating life and personality of Muhammad Ali, Mann's direction and Smith's performance combine to pack a solid punch."[16] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 65 out of 100, based on 39 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[17] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[18]

Roger Ebert derided the film with two stars in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, and mentioned, "it lacks much of the flash, fire and humor of Muhammad Ali and is shot more in the tone of a eulogy than a celebration".[19] In Variety magazine, Todd McCarthy wrote, "The director's visual and aural dapplings are strikingly effective at their best, but over the long haul don't represent a satisfactory alternative to in-depth dramatic scenes; one longs, for example, for even one sequence in which Ali and Dundee discuss boxing strategy or assess an opponent", but he did have praise for the performances: "The cast is outstanding, from Smith, who carries the picture with consummate skill, and Voight, who is unrecognizable under all the makeup but nails Cosell's distinctive vocal cadences".[20] USA Today gave the film two and half stars out of four and stated that, "for many Ali fans, the movie may be good enough, but some perspective is in order. The documentaries a.k.a. Cassius Clay and the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings cover a lot of the same ground and are consistently more engaging".[21]

In The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell proclaimed Ali to be a "breakthrough" film for Mann, adding that it was his "first movie with feeling" and that "his overwhelming love of its subject will turn audiences into exuberant, thrilled fight crowds".[22] J. Hoberman, in his review for the Village Voice, felt that the "first half percolates wonderfully—and the first half hour is even better than that. Mann opens with a thrilling montage that, spinning in and out of a nightclub performance by Sam Cooke, contextualizes the hero in his times", and concluded that, "Ali's astonishing personality is skillfully evoked but, in the end, remains a mystery".[23]

When Ali died on June 3, 2016, Smith was chosen to be one of Ali's pallbearers for the memorial service in Louisville.


Award Category Recipient Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Actor Will Smith Nominated [24]
Best Supporting Actor Jon Voight Nominated
BET Awards Best Actor Will Smith Won
Best Actress Jada Pinkett Smith Nominated
Black Reel Awards Best Film Nominated [25]
Best Actor Will Smith Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Jamie Foxx Won
Best Supporting Actress Nona Gaye Won
Best Screenplay (Original or Adapted) Gregory Allen Howard Won
Best Song "The World's Greatest" – R. Kelly Nominated
Best Soundtrack Won
Best Film Poster Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Supporting Actor Jon Voight Won [26]
Critics' Choice Awards Best Picture Nominated [27]
Best Actor Will Smith Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Jon Voight Nominated
Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Will Smith Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Jon Voight Nominated
ESPY Awards Best Sports Movie Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Will Smith Nominated [28]
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Jon Voight Nominated
Best Original Score Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard Nominated
Golden Reel Awards Best Sound Editing – Music – Feature Film (Domestic and Foreign) Kenneth Karman, Lisa Jaime, Vicki Hiatt,
Stephanie Lowry, and Christine H. Luethje
Nominated [29]
Golden Schmoes Awards Most Overrated Movie of the Year Nominated
Golden Trailer Awards Best Drama Nominated
Jupiter Awards Best International Actor Will Smith Won
Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Best Period Makeup – Feature Judy Murdock Nominated [30]
Best Special Make-Up Effects – Feature Mark Garbarino and Nick Marra Nominated
MTV Movie Awards Best Male Performance Will Smith Won
NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Motion Picture Won
Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture Will Smith Won
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture Jamie Foxx Won
Mario Van Peebles Nominated
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Jada Pinkett Smith Nominated
Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards Best Editing William Goldenberg, Lynzee Klingman,
Stephen E. Rivkin, and Stuart Waks
Won [31]
Prism Awards Theatrical Feature Film Won

Alternate versions[edit]

Ali was released theatrically in 2001 at a length of 157 minutes; this version was released on DVD in 2002.[32] Mann then re-edited the film, creating a new Director's Cut that ran 165 minutes and was released on DVD in 2004;[33] approximately 4 minutes of theatrical footage was removed, while 14 minutes of previously unseen footage was inserted.[34] The Director's Cut also featured an audio commentary by Mann

In 2016 Mann created a third cut, significantly re-editing the film in the wake of Ali's death. He deleted one fight and added scenes and footage focusing on the political side of Ali's life.[35] This version runs 152 minutes and was released in 2017 on Blu-Ray as the Commemorative Edition.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Ali (2001)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
  2. ^ a b Zoë Ettinger (June 15, 2020). "20 films no one expected to lose money at the box office". Insider Inc. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
  3. ^ Mirror.co.uk (2016-06-04). "Muhammad Ali and the women who loved him during his four marriages". mirror. Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  4. ^ Patrick Goldstein (December 9, 2001). "A Fight That Went the Full 15 Rounds". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on August 19, 2016. Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  5. ^ Michael Fleming (1993-12-01). "Peters-Semel team rumored". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  6. ^ Brad Schreiber (2002-02-19). "Fusing fact and fiction for art's sake". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  7. ^ Staff (1998-03-25). "McConaughey sees 'Evel'; Horner tune$ in". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  8. ^ Michael Fleming (1998-08-14). "Sonnenfeld, Smith might team again on Ali biopic". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  9. ^ Michael Fleming (1999-10-14). "Parkerperks 'Women'; Gere turns on Fawcett". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  10. ^ "Spike Lee protests Ali decision". The Guardian. March 9, 2000. Retrieved September 22, 2023.
  11. ^ Michael Fleming (2000-02-22). "Mann handling Ali pic". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  12. ^ Michael Fleming (2000-07-20). "For Roth, it's 'Potter' or 'Planet'?". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  13. ^ Michael Fleming (2000-05-16). "Allen may be in 'Big Trouble'; Smith's Ali". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  14. ^ Cathy Dunkley (2001-05-08). "IEG punches up 'Ali' deal". Variety. Retrieved 2014-10-14.
  15. ^ Barra, Allen (2001-09-09). "THE NEW SEASON/FILM; Michael Mann and Will Smith in the Ring With Ali". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-03-10.
  16. ^ "Ali". Rotten Tomatoes.
  17. ^ "Ali Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
  18. ^ "Find CinemaScore" (Type "Ali" in the search box). CinemaScore. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger (2001-12-25). "Ali". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
  20. ^ McCarthy, Todd (2001-12-16). "Ali". Variety. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
  21. ^ Clark, Mike (2001-12-31). "Despite hype, Ali isn't the greatest". USA Today. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
  22. ^ Mitchell, Elvis (2001-12-25). "Master of the Boast, King of the Ring, Vision of the Future". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
  23. ^ Hoberman, J (December 26, 2001). "Fight Songs". Village Voice. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  24. ^ "The 74th Academy Awards (2002) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved November 19, 2011.
  25. ^ "Black Reel Awards - Past Winners & Nominees". Black Reel Awards. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  26. ^ "1988-2013 Award Winner Archives". Chicago Film Critics Association. January 1, 2013. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  27. ^ "The BFCA Critics' Choice Awards :: 2001". Broadcast Film Critics Association. January 11, 2002. Archived from the original on January 7, 2013. Retrieved March 16, 2011.
  28. ^ "Ali". Golden Globe Awards. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  29. ^ "Sound editors tap noms for Golden Reel Awards". Variety. Retrieved June 27, 2019.
  30. ^ Jill Feiwell (January 17, 2002). "20th, U pix make hair, makeup cut". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved December 29, 2018.
  31. ^ "PFCS Awards – 2002". IMDb. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  32. ^ "Ali DVD Release Date April 30, 2002". Archived from the original on 2017-01-18. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  33. ^ "Ali - The Director's Cut". 1 June 2004 – via Amazon.
  34. ^ "Ali Comparison". MovieCensorship.com. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  35. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr. (17 January 2017). "Michael Mann On Muhammad Ali, Will Smith & His New Cut Of 'Ali'". deadline.com.
  36. ^ "Ali Blu-ray". blu-ray.com.

External links[edit]