Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest boxer of all time, described Lewiston as the “Greatest” — with a capital “G” — in a letter to the community May 25. His thank-you note went out to the city and the producers of a documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of his iconic boxing matchup with Sonny Liston.
Shown at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee and directed by Portland filmmaker Gary Robinov, the film “Raising Ali: A Lewiston Story” weaves together both the narrative surrounding the infamous heavyweight championship and Lewiston’s past history and present reality.
Lewiston helped pave the way for Ali to be remembered as one of the greatest boxers of all time, and Ali, in his letter to the residents of Lewiston, repaid the favor.
“May God bless you all,” Ali wrote, “and believe it or not, in my book you are the Greatest!”
“It’s a love letter to Lewiston,” Robinov told the Portland Press Herald. “Obviously it’s about the fight, but it’s so much more than just a historical look back into 1965. It’s really kind of a look at memory and collective memory and identity and what happens over time.”
Boxing buffs and folks with good memories will remember that Ali knocked out Liston in the first round with his “phantom punch.” This memorable moniker and Neil Leifer’s photograph of an animated Ali standing over a stunned Liston have perhaps done the most to immortalize the fight when Cassius Clay was first introduced as Muhammad Ali.
Not surprisingly, then, Leifer’s photo, which captures Ali crying for Liston to “Get up and fight,” was the impetus behind the making of “Raising Ali” — inspiring the likes of artist and executive producer Charlie Hewitt.
“It’s a sentimental portrait of a struggling old factory town that was visited by greatness,” Hewitt said when asked about the documentary, according to The New York Times. “And what Ali told Liston as he was standing over him resonates today. Lewiston is still trying to get up and fight.”
Invited to the world premier of the film but unable to attend, Ali wrote and sent a letter to the people of Lewiston, thanking the community members and the creators of the film.
“A smile comes over my face as my wife reads me the request, inviting me to participate in the world premier of the documentary,” Ali wrote. “Today it is me, Muhammad Ali, who arrived in Lewiston for the first time after changing his name and converting to Islam, who is being embraced.”
John Jenkins, former mayor of both Lewiston and Auburn, read aloud the letter to the attendees of the commemorative celebration. When asked about the impact the fight had on Lewiston, Jenkins said he believed that the bout had been a seminal event in both Lewiston’s and Ali’s growth.
“Here comes Ali, at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, a different kind of black man, who wouldn’t let others define him and who was threatening a whole lot of white folks,” Jenkins said. “And it was Lewiston that gave him a chance to defend his title and go from there to become the most famous person in the world.”
Fifty years later, Ali still hasn’t forgotten the debt he owes to the city of Lewiston.
“I want to thank the citizens of Lewiston for continuing to to make me a part of your community and history,” Ali wrote. “And thank you for opening your hearts, minds and community to my Muslim brothers and sisters.”
Since 1965, however, the loss of jobs in Lewiston has contributed to the steady decline of the area’s dwindling population. A city that had once boasted more than 41,000 residents, today only tops off at around 36,000. Even so, there is hope that the recent improvements in the economy, bolstered by an influx of people from Somalia, will result in a brighter and more lucrative future. “Raising Ali: A Lewiston Story,” foreshadows such a tomorrow.
“Hopefully [the film] ends on a very high metaphorical note — Get up and fight, get up and fight take control of your destiny — take control,” Robinov said, according to the Sun Journal. “Don’t let these situations dictate to you where you need to be or who you are.”