I liked King Richard, which I saw over the weekend, but one line stuck with me like a thread of spinach I couldn't get out of my teeth.
The movie focuses on the headstrong Richard Williams (Will Smith) and his efforts to prepare his daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) for tennis superstardom and life in a prejudiced world. Well-directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, King Richard is the kind of crowd-pleaser that would build its audience week by week if a pandemic weren’t going on and the parent company hadn’t decided to stream the movie at the same time it debuted in theaters.
The story is eye-opening and suspenseful, even though you know where it’s going, and it raises provocative questions about how hard a parent should push kids to help them transcend their surroundings and achieve greatness. Smith brings a magnetic, shambling quality to Richard, not completely subsuming his innate charm but also letting you know why so many people consider him an irritant.
Aunjanue Ellis makes an equally strong impression as Oracene “Brandy” Williams, the girls’ mother who’s just as instrumental in their training and puts the clamps on Richard’s excesses. Jon Bernthal also is a standout as thick-mustached coach Rick Macci, whose upbeat nature is constantly put to the test by Richard’s whims, resulting in an entertaining state of slow burn.
My biggest fault with the movie is that it doesn’t do enough to bring out the five daughters’ distinct personalities. Too often they seem framed as Good Kids rather than individuals who have rivalries and disagreements, as all siblings do. I’m rooting for Venus and Serena at the end, but I don’t know them, and I really don’t know their three sisters.
But let’s get back to the line that bothered me out of proportion to my enjoyment of the movie. It comes almost two hours in, as young Venus, in her first pro tournament, has been slated to face the world’s No. 1 female tennis player, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (Marcela Zacarias).
In a hallway outside the locker rooms, Richard greets Bud Collins (Brad Greenquist), a real-life tennis broadcaster whom Richard, earlier in the movie, has tried to interest in his daughters. Bud turns to Rick, the coach, and says:
“Rick, if she beats Vicario, a 14-year-old who’s never played a match, walks off the street and beats the best player on the planet? Forget Ali-Frazier. It’ll be the greatest upset in the history of sports!”
Which fight was the upset?
Was Bud referring to “The Fight of the Century,” the first time those two met in the ring on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden? Joe Frazier was the multiple-title-holding world heavyweight champion with a 26-0 record and 23 knockouts. Muhammad Ali was 31-0 with 25 knockouts but fighting just his third bout after a three-and-a-half-year layoff while banned from boxing for refusing to enlist in the army after being drafted.
Frazier was favored. Frazier won by unanimous decision.
Or was Bud referring to “Super Fight II,” the Ali-Frazier rematch on Jan. 28, 1974 at Madison Square Garden? Frazier already had lost his title to George Foreman by TKO, and this time Ali was favored. Ali won.
Or maybe he meant their last battle in the “Thrilla in Manila” on Oct. 5, 1975 in the Philippines. Now Ali was world heavyweight champion and was the favorite again. Frazier’s trainer asked for this all-time brutal bout to be stopped after the 14th round, and Ali retained his belt.
To recap: Three classic Ali-Frazier fights, all closely matched, no upsets.
This would have been such an easy script fix.
Ali’s pounding of Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship on Feb. 25, 1964 was a shocker and cultural touchstone that inspired last year’s movie One Night in Miami.
The 32-year-old Ali also was a major underdog to undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman, who had destroyed Frazier and just about everyone else, when the two fought in “The Rumble in the Jungle” on Oct. 30, 1974 in Zaire. Ali wore down his hard-hitting younger opponent with his new “rope-a-dope” strategy before knocking him out in the eight round.
That fight has been immortalized in many movies too, such as the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings.
All of these fights also were covered in Michael Mann’s Ali.
Which starred Will Smith.
Who not only plays the title character of King Richard but also is one of the producers.
You know who else was in Ali? Brad Greenquist, who utters the “Ali-Frazier” line as Bud Collins. According to IMDb, Greenquist played Marlin Thomas in Ali, and, no, I don’t remember who that is.
How is it that no one who was involved in the screenplay or was actually saying or hearing this line on set thought to fix it? Couldn’t someone have said, “‘Forget Ali-Foreman’ or ‘Forget Ali-Liston’ would make more sense”?
I called my friend Jonathan Eig, who wrote the definitive biography Ali: A Life (2017), and he said when he heard the "Ali-Frazier" line in King Richard, "I yelled at the TV." He added: "'Ali-Liston' would’ve been my choice."
Clearly these people did.