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Ali Is Subject of TV Documentaries

August 10, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ Cassius Clay’s first amateur opponent remembers getting an earful during their bout.

``He said he was going to be the world’s heavyweight champion,″ Ronnie O’Keefe says, ``and he ain’t shut up since.″

It’s a snippet from one of several interviews that help piece together the life of Muhammad Ali in ``Twice Born,″ a moving NBC documentary that will air during the network’s Olympics coverage and is one of three upcoming TV films about The Greatest.

``Muhammad is just astounded that he’s still that popular. That he’s still good subject matter,″ his wife, Lonnie, said Wednesday night after a screening of ``Twice Born″ at the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan.

Each of the three projects is quite different.

NBC’s movie, which will air Sept. 30 unless bad weather in Australia creates an earlier opening, is a 43-minute montage of footage, photos and talks with people close to Ali, including Lonnie. It follows the life of the three-time heavyweight champion from toddler to today.

The HBO documentary ``Ali-Frazier I: One Nation Divisible″ (next Thursday, 10 p.m. EDT/PDT) is one hour focusing entirely on what was called simply ``The Fight.″ The story is told through old clips _ a handful are also in NBC’s piece _ and present-day interviews, several with journalists.

Fox weighs in with ``Ali: An American Hero″ (Aug. 31, 8 p.m. EDT/PDT), a two-hour made-for-TV movie billed as an ``unauthorized biopic.″ Written by Jamal Joseph and directed by Leon Ichaso, it stars David Ramsey (``Con Air″) as Ali.

What Fox didn’t realize is that before being ravaged by Parkinson’s, Ali was more gregarious than just about any actor could hope to be. Nothing matches watching his spirit and poetry, in and out of the ring, come to life via original clips.

``An American Hero,″ curiously, shows more fight reconstruction than either of the documentaries shows actual bouts. It also concentrates on Clay’s conversion to Islam more than the other films, depicting a chance street encounter with Malcom X.

It traces the boxer’s life only up until the ``Rumble in the Jungle″ against George Foreman _ and so tells only half of Ali’s intriguing tale.

``One Nation Divisible″ sees the 1971 title fight between two undefeated heavyweights as a prism through which to interpret the cultural divides of that era.

It also offers tidbits: A James Taylor concert, slated for the same night at New York’s Madison Square Garden, was rescheduled and the singer was given tickets; Burt Lancaster was one of the announcers for the closed-circuit TV broadcast; and Frank Sinatra took photos at ringside for a magazine.

The shortest yet most all-encompassing of the three is ``Twice Born,″ co-produced by Lisa Lax and NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol.

Interviews with Ali’s mother-in-law, 1960 Olympic teammate Skeeter McClure, trainer Angelo Dundee, among others, reveal anecdotes that alternate between riotously funny and touching.

Denzel Washington voices words Ali has written or spoken.

``The idea evolved directly from a conversation I had with Lonnie the morning after the opening ceremony in Atlanta, when Muhammad lit the cauldron,″ Ebersol said. ``She told me how he stayed awake that night in his hotel room, holding the torch, and it was almost like he was born again.″

What the documentary lacks is much boxing action, which Lax, who is responsible for about 130 profiles for NBC’s Olympics coverage, said was a conscious omission.

``This isn’t a boxing movie _ it’s the story of this man’s life,″ Lax said. ``That’s what makes the movie different. It’s the personal side, enlightening viewers as to who this man is.″

He is, without question, an entertainer. After watching Wednesday’s screening, which he entered to a standing ovation, Ali whispered, ``Time for a comeback,″ and slowly feigned a punch.


WNBA RATINGZZZZ: Regular-season WNBA ratings dipped slightly on NBC and dropped a lot on ESPN.

ESPN’s average rating for its 10 games was 0.51, a decrease of 29 percent from last season’s 0.72.

NBC’s 11 WNBA broadcasts averaged a 1.4, just off the 1.5 from last season _ not nearly as big a fall as the network’s NBA ratings took (there wasn’t as much room to fall, of course).

ESPN opens its WNBA playoff coverage with two games Friday, at 7 and 9 p.m. EDT, while NBC starts Saturday at 4 p.m. EDT.


BROADCAST NEWS: Orel Hershiser will be in the booth for the Little League World Series title game, Aug. 26, on ABC. He’ll also call games on the ESPN networks, which start regional finals coverage Tuesday on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. EDT. ... Part II of the Dennis Miller Experiment on ``Monday Night Football″ is Monday, starting at 7 p.m. EDT. ... Fox will let viewers see what watching baseball on TV used to be like with the Dodgers-Cubs game on Aug. 26 _ the 61st anniversary of the first televised major league game. Each inning will be broadcast as though it were a different era, starting from the 1930s (black and white, no graphics) in the first inning. ... Kenny Mayne will play host to ESPN’s ″2-Minute Drill″ trivia show, debuting Sept. 11. The show was developed by the executive producer of ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.″ ... CNN’s ``Page One″ on Saturday examines the state of women’s sports. ... Kevin Greene, third on the NFL’s career sacks list, is joining ESPN2′s ``NFL 2Night.″

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