Sport on TV: Muhammad Ali rings the changes after courting controversy

During a week in which we have done little else other than obsess about some kid who doesn't even qualify as a famous Belgian and can't work out what football nation to represent, what a relief to watch a high-quality drama about arguably the greatest sportsman of all, a young man who knew where he was coming from – and lost three years of his career because he stuck to the religious beliefs of the Nation of Islam.

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (Sky Atlantic, Wednesday) told the story of the United States Supreme Court prevaricating over the boxer after he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam war. He once said: "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother", who was living in a country 10,000 miles away. Goodness knows what Jack Wilshere would have made of that.

Conscious of his roots in slavery, Cassius Clay converted to the Nation of Islam and became Ali after winning the world heavyweight title in 1964. The powerful effect of his draft-dodging was such that the Supreme Court, in contemplating sending him to prison, considered putting the war itself on trial. These were ground-breaking times and the articulate pugilist was just the man to be at the epicentre of it all. And yet, at the height of his fame, he was banned from boxing and we even see him appearing on a chatshow with a huge afro wig on, playing some cheesey part in a musical.

Except for the archive footage, there's no Ali character in this full-length feature film. Indeed, the only black face is Danny Glover –it's an all-star cast – and he disappears within a few minutes (it is, however, a judge called Harry Blackmun who fights Ali's corner). At the centre is Chief Justice Warren Burger, whose idea of equality is to suggest that blacks are employed to look after municipal gardens because "they have such a lovely sense of colour". His own understanding of the colour issue barely alters but the other judges finally vote in favour of exonerating Ali and he has to go along with them. From 5-3 down to 8-0 up; even Ali himself would struggle to win that many rounds.

The fundamental issue is that of a "holy war"since his religion instructs him only to fight with weapons if God tells him to. But the film closes with footage of Ali reacting with remarkable humility to the change at the heart of the justice system. There's none of the loud-mouthed triumphalism of the ring. The "greatest" retains his sense of perspective. "How can I get on them for really doing what they believe was right?" he says of their original condemnation.

Compare that with a member of the public who is asked if he objects to the conscientious objector: "Yes sir, I surely do, because he's no better than the rest of us." The fact is, he is better than the rest of us in so many ways.

* Congratulations to Gemma Fay, Scotland's most capped footballer with 160 appearances to her name. The goalkeeper has become a TV star in Drama Matters: Rubenesque (Sky Living, Wednesday), in which she plays a referee who loses her job but becomes a plus-size swimwear model instead.

It's not nearly as unrealistic as it sounds, and she simultaneously strikes a blow for women in sport and women who aren't as thin as sticks. She also strikes some hilarious poses for her audition with a referee's hand signals (she also indulges in a lot of stretching before strutting her stuff).

The only problem, presumably, is she's so good at this acting lark that she might give up playing football. It would be a harsh penalty for Scotland if they lost their goalkeeper of the last 15 years.

Comments