Tribeca: 'What's My Name | Muhammad Ali' Team Talk Telling the Icon's Story in His Own Words

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Antoine Fuqua

"This film is a lot about sports being a metaphor for something greater,” director Antoine Fuqua told The Hollywood Reporter about his new two-part HBO sports doc set to premiere May 14.

What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali, the latest take on the life and impact of the sports and social justice icon, is all about his fights — both in the ring and outside of it, says the documentary’s director and executive producer, Antoine Fuqua.

“Muhammad Ali has several fights,” Fuqua told The Hollywood Reporter before the film’s premiere in New York. “In the ring, spiritually, outside of the ring, and with Parkinson's. There's all these fights. That was his life.”

Screening Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival with Ali’s widow, Lonnie, and his grandchildren in attendance, the intimate two-hour look at the professional boxer, activist and philanthropist is told literally through his own words.

“Most sports documentaries have talking heads, have other people telling the story about the person,” Fuqua said about the sports doc, which is set to premiere exclusively on HBO on May 14. “Rarely do you get the person to tell his own story, and I think that's really important. Everybody should tell their own story. Especially someone like Muhammad Ali. His life is so large.”

With Ali’s voice to guide the story, the documentary uses personal photos, magazine covers and newspaper headlines, in addition to a mix of audio and video of his training, fights, TV interviews and other never-before-seen archival footage to trace his life, from 1960 and his first televised match onward.

To get all that material, Fuqua visited Ali’s training camp Fighter’s Heaven, and worked with an archival researcher who dug through material from around the globe. The What’s My Name team even knocked on doors, speaking to any willing person who had interviewed him over the course of his life.

In light of having so much available, the challenge of the project wasn’t in figuring out what the story was, but how to get it all crammed into 160 minutes and keeping a clear end goal in mind, Fuqua said.

“Having his voice kind of lead it, Ali tells you where he wants the story to go,” said Fuqua. “[But] I always knew my ending. My ending was always going to be the greatness of Muhammad Ali.… I just knew that's what I wanted to feel.”

That greatness is encapsulated in a number of ways, from Ali’s Olympics win to his refusal to be drafted during Vietnam. Fuqua and his documentary team worked to illustrate how “The Greatest,” with his passion for education, refusal to stay quiet and absolute dedication to every fight, earned him his famous title on a national and international stage. Even when his opponents and his country hated him for it.

“A lot of people were angry because he decided to become a Muslim and…chose something different for himself,” Fuqua said. “I don't think people really understood the man, [but] he just stood on his own principles. That's what Muhammad Ali was about.”

What’s My Name is not the first project about Ali that’s been produced, but for executive producer Bill Gerber, it was a necessary and timely addition to the boxing’s star’s vast media collection.

“His whole life and his way of giving back and everything about the man is so exemplary and extraordinary that you can't say enough about him,” Gerber, who worked on the Oscar-winning A Star Is Born, told THR. “I really felt like there hadn't been enough about him since the Olympic story and the torch to really say to people, ‘Look, if you believe in something, you need to stick to your guns and walk the walk.’"

For Maverick Carter, CEO of SpringHill Entertainment, that message was a big part of why the TV and film development company, which he co-founded with LeBron James, got involved with the documentary.

“It's important for us that athletes are known for more than just getting rebounds and scoring points. That we're known for being humans who care about things and are not just human interest stories,” Carter told The Hollywood Reporter at the premiere. “[Ali] gave his life, gave his sport, gave his career for what he believed in and that was a very empowering thing. He’s about what we believe with our tagline: I am more than an athlete. Ali is the epitome of that tagline.”

The icon's message of empowerment — as a boxer and an activist — was ultimately important to the entire doc team when deciding how to tell Ali's story. 

"This film is a lot about sports being a metaphor for something greater,” Fuqua told THR. “That's why I have a boxing ring in my office. Because it's all about getting knocked down, getting back up. Winning some games. Losing some games. Trying to find greatness within yourself. Boxing is a chess match, not just a brutal sport that people think it is. You have to think. You got to be smart. It's life, right?”