It would be fair to say that what makes a movie really stand out is the emotion behind it and what the film makes you feel right along with the characters. To achieve this, actors have to undergo some serious conditioning to prepare for a role, especially when an actor is playing a historical figure who has overcome major physical obstacles. This is true for Will Smith back when he played boxer Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali in 2001; apparently he even “fell to his knees” during the brutal regimen needed to prepare for the role.
Boxers undergo some serious damage doing what they love, both physically and mentally. Brain injury is pretty common in the sport, reportedly occurring in about 20% of boxers, and plenty of boxers have died resulting from injuries they have sustained in the ring. In retirement, many boxers still have lasting effects on their bodies attributed to the profession. Muhammad Ali, for example, sustained a broken jaw and an estimated 29 THOUSAND blows to the head during his career. He later died in 2016 after having suffered from Parkinson's disease for a number of years.
Muhammad Ali famously went 15 rounds in a fight with Joe Frazier, which Will Smith had to imitate in the film Ali. To really get the scope of how Ali felt while in the match and the risks every boxer takes when entering the ring time and time again, Smith underwent some serious training with boxer trainer Darrel Foster, and it wasn’t just about seriously getting into shape.
In an interview with NME, Foster recalls the time he took Smith 10,000 feet into the Rocky Mountains to recreate the feeling of fighting without being able to breathe. Smith apparently fell to his knees during the experience, finally understanding just how much strength Muhammad Ali had to have to persevere. This is how Foster tells it:
I took Will up to 10,000 feet in Aspen, Colorado so he could understand what it felt like to experience oxygen deprivation in order to correlate it to how Ali felt in the 14th round with [former world heavyweight champion] Joe Frazier and how it feels to actually not be able to breathe and you’ve still gotta keep fighting. I made Will run and throw punches. He fell to his knees and I made him write Ali’s name in the snow. And he said: ‘Now I get it.'
It sounds like that was some seriously brutal training - although, nothing like Muhammad Ali really had to go through when he was in the ring with someone who had gone through the same type of physical battles (and mental too). Even so, it does take a sort of courage to take on the responsibility of portraying someone who was so influential and an image of such perseverance to so many people.
Muhammad Ali fought professionally for 21 years; while it’s pretty impossible to train for that amount of professionalism for a film, it sounds like fighting 10k miles above sea level would be the next best thing. While it doesn’t sound like much fun at all for Will Smith, Darrel Foster seems to have done his job in helping Smith recreate an icon like Ali.