During the decade spanning his coronation as the world heavyweight champ in 1964 to his infamous Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in 1974, Muhammad Ali went from self-made man to self-propelled myth. In that period, chronicled in Michael Mann’s $100 million biopic, the world hung on Ali’s every word, some of which made him sound like a preening emblem of self-confidence (”Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”), others a principled pariah (”I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”).
Needless to say, if your name is Will Smith, there’s a little bit of pressure. In short, ”Ali” is Smith’s title shot, his chance to segue from the box office megastar of ”Independence Day” and ”Men in Black” to the ranks of the undisputed dramatic heavyweights. ”Will already had the seed of Muhammad Ali in him,” says Michael Mann. ”And we actually spent a lot of time with Muhammad — he was around during the training and the shooting…and the thing is, over time, Will made himself into Muhammad Ali.” Adds Jon Voight, who plays Ali’s longtime television foil, ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, ”From the day I came in to test my makeup, Will was there talking to me like Ali talking to Cosell. Will and Ali have a very similar competitiveness and work ethic, and a sense of commitment to entertaining — because Muhammad Ali was an entertainer.”
In fact, Mann says that his star trained for nearly a year before shooting even began. He sparred in the ring with pros, added 35 pounds of muscle, and even taunted the king of all taunters. ”Will got to a place where he could talk the talk,” says Mario Van Peebles, who plays Ali’s spiritual big brother, Malcolm X. ”When Ali was on the set, Will would yell at him, ‘I’m faster than you were, I’m prettier than you were, and quicker, too!”’