Lord of the Ring

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First, you hear him tapping. He's in his office, on his farm on the southern border of Michigan, making art. He's such a big man — solid as a brick wall and well over 6 ft. — that he nearly dwarfs the conference table where he's seated. Before him is a large piece of paper and several black markers. In the center of the paper he's drawn a tiny boxing ring with two tiny stick figures. The larger one is labeled MUHAMMAD ALI, and it's delivering a solid punch to the much smaller one, labeled JOE FRAZIER.

All around the boxing ring, all the way out to the edges of the paper, the 59-year-old artist formerly known as Cassius Clay taps away with his black marker, making hundreds of dots, each representing one spectator. "Thrilla in Manila," he says, struggling to speak, in a low, gravelly whisper. "These are the people." He often draws these pictures, re-creating his glorious fights. Making the dots keeps him busy for hours and helps maintain his motor skills, which have been diminished by the Parkinson's he has suffered from for two decades. But his mind and sense of humor remain sharp. While tap-tap-tapping away with his black marker, he talks about Ali, the movie about his life opening Dec. 25, with Will Smith in the title role.

"He did a good job," says Muhammad Ali, who played himself in the awful 1977 biopic The Greatest. For this new movie, under the tutelage of director Michael Mann (The Insider), Smith prepared by studying Ali's Islamic faith and learning to box, training for nearly a year. The 33-year-old star added 30 lbs. of muscle to his lanky physique and transformed his body into a nearly perfect replica of the champ's when he was in fighting form. When this observation is shared with Ali, he pauses, then looks up from his drawing and, his eyes twinkling a bit, says with a small smile, "They say we all look alike."

Ali often says things like this to shock strangers. The truth is, no one looks like Ali. Smith is arguably the most likable movie star on the planet, but not even he possesses Ali's singular DNA pattern of beauty, grace and bravado. To make a movie about Ali — perhaps the most idolized, vilified and complex public figure of the 20th century — has been a high-wire act of both hubris and dedication. "For an African American, Muhammad Ali is the biggest role you could have. Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela — with any of those roles comes a responsibility," says Smith. "The level of dedication to this role is unparalleled to anything I've done so far other than having a family."

Ali's journey to the screen began a decade ago, when Oliver Stone met with the champ about making a movie of his life. They remained friendly, but the professional collaboration ended when the director refused to share creative control of the film. In 1992 Howard Bingham, Ali's longtime confidant and photographer, and Lonnie Ali, his fourth wife and business partner, hooked up with producer Paul Ardaji. A friend and former advertising executive, Ardaji optioned the rights to the fighter's life, and the project eventually landed at Sony. The Alis maintained contractual control over the movie's basic story and met with all five writers (including Mann) who would work on the screenplay.

When the couple read a treatment by Steve Rivele and Chris Wilkinson (Nixon), Lonnie sent back two requests. "One was that we be respectful to the women in Ali's life," says Rivele. "The other was to make it clear that he'd never done a bit of housework in his life." The initial screenplay, which Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans) delivered in 1996, offered this fascinating insight: "The key to Ali's life was his relationship with his father, who ignored him," says Howard. "It explains his need to please older men like Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Howard Cosell and Don King."

The movie went nowhere, though, because Smith was too "terrified" to sign on. "I didn't want to be the dude that messed up the Muhammad Ali story," he says. He also had trouble relating to a man whose life had been so defined by racial injustice. "I'm a child of rap music," says Smith, who started his career in music and still moonlights as a rapper. "We've got Bentleys. We can't even relate to not being able to sit in somebody's lunch counter. I'll buy the counter and throw you out." But for Ali, Smith was always the first choice: "He's the only guy in the world who could look like me and act like me."

After a management turnover at Sony, several more rewrites were assigned while many directors, including Barry Sonnenfeld, Curtis Hanson and Spike Lee, circled the movie. Mann ultimately took the job after meeting with the Alis. "The one thing they feared was a sentimentalization," says Mann, "a teary Hallmark- greeting version of Muhammad Ali...What they didn't want is what I didn't want." When asked why he didn't choose a black director, Ali answers, "The people that made the movie, I know they're qualified. I don't care what color they are." His wife adds that "Muhammad didn't want it to be a movie just for black audiences. He wanted it to be a movie for all cultures and all people."

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