If Muhammad Ali hadn't existed, Hollywood might have tried to invent him. A handsome athlete who speaks like a poet and can back up his trash talk with his fists, a principled martyr who can take an insane amount of punishment inside and outside the ring, a hero who goes from underdog to champ and back again several times -- if a Hollywood screenwriter had invented such a character arc, who would believe it?

Ali, who turns 70 today, was bigger than the movies. Several films have tried to capture portions of his life, but the whole story is simply too big for one movie. Here are five that focus on portions of his life, either in documentary or lightly fictionalized form. None does him complete justice, but together, they'll remind you of why Ali was, and always will be, the Greatest.

1. "Ali the Fighter" (1971). Shot at the time of the first of Ali and Joe Frazier's three mythic bouts, this documentary gives a hint of the backstage tensions (Frazier had supported Ali during his protest against the Vietnam War that kept Ali out of the ring for several years, only to see Ali betray him with vicious taunts in the weeks before the fight). It also includes all 15 rounds of what many fight fans consider to be the greatest heavyweight title match of all time.

2. "The Greatest" (1977). Ali played himself in this biopic. It's no cinematic masterpiece -- the story glosses over some of the less flattering moments of Ali's life, and the narrative is less exciting than the fight scenes -- but none of that matters much, since the star himself is so charismatic and beloved by the camera.

3. "When We Were Kings" (1996). Not just the greatest movie about Ali, but maybe the greatest movie about boxing ever made. Leon Gast's documentary reveals the behind-the-scenes story of the Rumble in the Jungle, the legendary 1974 bout between an aging Ali (then 32) and a brutal young George Foreman (still decades away from becoming a cuddly electric-grill pitchman). The match, as recalled by such sports literati as Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, is just one part of the vast circus surrounding the event (including a music festival with James Brown and B.B. King), but it was the most exciting, featuring the most memorable of Ali's many comebacks.

4. "Ali" (2001). In Michael Mann's biopic, Will Smith is nearly as great an Ali as the Greatest himself, in a movie that covers the most pivotal decade of the fighter's life (from his defeat of Sonny Liston to his conversion to Islam to his antiwar protests to his long exile from the ring to his eventual victory over Foreman in the "Rumble"). Mann's usual moody, dreamlike approach doesn't always fit the story, but he manages to give dramatic weight, shape, social context, and even suspense to the familiar tale.

5. "Facing Ali" (2009). Ten of Ali's opponents describe what it was like to go toe-to-toe and fist-to-fist with the fearsome heavyweight at various stages of his career. Whether they beat him or were beaten by him, the likes of Frazier, Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, and Larry Holmes all pay Ali their respects for the outsize figure he cut both inside the ropes and in the world outside them.

categories Movies