HBO threw in the towel and ended its 45-year run with live boxing in 2018, but they are reentering the boxing ring again to create premium programming.
The network is developing Unruly, a six-part series on the world’s first Black heavyweight boxing champion in Jack Johnson. Two-time Academy Award winner and True Detective star Mahershala Ali will star in the series and play the role of Johnson.
The limited series is being described as "unapologetically Black, no-holds-barred telling of Jack Johnson, the world's first Black heavyweight boxing champion. This bold exploration depicts the champion's rise to athletic greatness and the costs he paid for his skin and defiance, which created a blueprint for Black resistance in every justice movement for generations to come," per Variety.
Unruly will be produced by Playtone, which is headed by Hollywood heavyweights like Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. It will be written by Dominique Morisseau.
The 46-year-old Ali previously portrayed the “Galveston Giant” in 2000 during one of his first acting gigs in a stage production of The Great White Hope.
Johnson’s life has been previously portrayed in the PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. It was produced and directed by heralded documentarian Ken Burns.
The 3.5 hour picture explored the highs and lows of Johnson’s life, most notably as heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915 at the height of the Jim Crow era. In 1910, Johnson defeated James J. Jeffries in what was then billed as the “fight of the century.”
Johnson (54-11-7, 34 KOs) died in 1948 at the age of 68.
Ali has expressed several times throughout the years that he’d love to play the role of Johnson.
“I’ve never been on the hero’s journey! Not one time,” Ali told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. “I’ve had the opportunity to support that journey, but I don’t know what that is to go on the hero’s journey and to carry a story. I would love to know what that is. There are so many wonderful characters out there. He is somewhat of a tragic figure, but I would love to play Jack Johnson. I would love to play Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye and Jack Johnson are my dream roles, but I really just want the opportunity to go on the hero’s journey. I’ve never done that.”
Ali’s dreams, now, have come true.
Manouk Akopyan is a sports journalist and member of the Boxing Writers Assn. of America since 2011. He has written for the likes of the LA Times, Guardian, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Men’s Health and NFL.com. He can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan or via email at manouk[dot]akopyan[at]gmail.com.