ESPN and great filmmaking: not exactly synonymous. At least not until now. A couple of years ago the sports network’s Bill Simmons had a brainstorm: “I was watching an old HBO Sports documentary,” the columnist recalled recently, ”and got mad that HBO had this monopoly… we’re a sports network and they’re not.” In that moment of consternation, a breakthrough idea was given birth – to commemorate ESPN’s 30th anniversary by commissioning 30 world class directors to make 30 documentaries telling “stories that people hadn’t heard of or hadn’t thought of for a while.”

The list of all stars tapped for the “30 for 30” series is impressive, featuring the likes of Barry Levinson, Barbara Kopple, Alex Gibney, Ron Shelton, John Singleton, Spike Jonze, and living legend Albert Maysles. Maysles (82), whose body of work includes such classics as “Salesman,” “Grey Gardens,” and “Gimme Shelter,” has been called the “dean of documentary filmmakers” by the New York Times.

“Muhammad and Larry,” Maysles’ contribution to the ESPN series “30 for 30” which will air on October 27, 2009, offers a fascinating if heart-breaking chronicle of the weeks leading up to the tragic October 1980 title fight between the two champions and will be of interest to movie lovers and boxing fans alike.

The picture interweaves never-before-seen footage of both men training and ruminating on their approaching bout with present day testimony from Holmes and key veterans of the Ali camp. The result virtually rewrites history as most of us think we know it.

Ali is, of course, one of the world’s most revered figures, while Holmes has been virtually forgotten despite his superior record (he was 35 and 0 with 26 knockouts and WBC Champion going into the 1980 match). In the course of the film the director pieces together a portrait of Ali that challenges both our collective memory and our perception of the man. If the truth can sometimes hurt, what we witness in “Muhammad and Larry” can pack the wallop of an emotional body blow.

Ali, the film reminds us, was already showing troubling signs of neurological damage by the age of 38. Two years after retaking the title from Leon Spinks and announcing his retirement, the fighter was offered $8 million to face off against the 30-year-old Holmes in Las Vegas. Asked why the offer was accepted, a former trainer is succinct: “Greed.”

As the match draws near, it’s shocking to watch Ali train and perceptibly lose ground rather than gain it. You can see the panic in his eyes. You can see his legs slowing, his arms growing heavy. And, with the help of Ferdie Pacheco, his fight doctor from 1962 to 1977, you learn the appalling truth behind the great athlete’s rapid decline. Pacheco reveals that a doctor with questionable motives and qualifications prescribed thyroid pills for weight loss just two weeks before the match and that Ali popped them with impunity like diet pills. “What fighter in the history of the goddamned world has ever taken thyroid pills before a fight?” Pacheco rages. “That’s like taking the wheels off an Indianapolis Speedway racer and racing without tires. The muscle you use to fight is burned up by the pills.”

“I’m gonna shock the world!” Ali boasted to the camera. That was the one promise he lived up to that sad October night. No one was prepared for the brutal beating he took and barely resisted. As shocking as his helplessness that evening, Maysles’ film reveals, were the failure of those closest to him to watch out for his well being, Ali’s delusional belief in his own myth and the complicity of the boxing commission, which was aware tests he had undergone at the Mayo Clinic in July raised all kinds of red flags yet allowed the show to go on anyway.

“Muhammad and Larry” is a terrific account of a terrible mistake. This is documentary filmmaking at its most elegant and engaging. If the other 29 pictures in ESPN’s series pack half the cinematic punch, expect HBO Sports to be down for the count.

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