Richmond native’s Muhammad Ali film humanizes boxer’s last fight

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Jesse Vaughan directing at age 19, at CBS 6.

Jesse Vaughan directing at age 19, at CBS 6.

RICHMOND, Va. – The first film of 150 to screen at the Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF) is a full-length film directed by a 27 Emmy award winning Richmond native who got his start at CBS 6.

Jesse Vaughan apparently had the skills needed to go into his field, given that he was directing weekend newscasts at CBS 6 at age 19. He was a sophomore in college at the time, just “trying to do his job.”

“I never foresaw any of what happened to me in my career,” Vaughan said.

The news business certainly has its challenges, many of which the Northside born and raised filmmaker contributes to his success. He went from studio camera to sound to directing. When he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, he went on to productions like “In Living Color,” the Olympics, feature film “Juwanna Man,” and documentaries for MTV.

“I always look back on my years at Channel 6 as setting a solid foundation for me to understand how to handle the pressures of live television broadcast with news – it’s pretty challenging…back then it was a real learning experience,” Vaughan said.

Not long ago, Vaughan moved back to the area for personal reasons and he took a job as director of  Advance Creative Services at  Virginia State University.

On Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m., the red carpet at the Byrd Theater leads to the debut of his feature length film “The Last Punch,” about the end of Mohammed Ali’s career.

Vaughan on set of Last Punch

Vaughan on set of Last Punch

Ali wanted to go out on top, and he gave James Cornelius, a self-described groupie of the fighter, the chance to promote his last fight in the Bahamas – over others like Don King, who had turned their backs on the waning champion.

“I read the first 30 pages of the script and knew right away that I wanted to do the movie,” Vaughn said, “because it was an insider’s view of the fight game and what it takes to promote a fight.”

Jesse Vaughan poses with his Emmy awards. Vaughan, a TV director and producer, recently came to Northern Arizona University's School of Communications to teach full-time. (James Bauerle/Arizona Daily Sun)

Jesse Vaughan poses with his Emmy awards. Vaughan, a TV director and producer, recently came to Northern Arizona University’s School of Communications to teach full-time. (James Bauerle/Arizona Daily Sun)

“The Last Punch” offers a humanizing look at Ali in the twilight of his career, Vaughan said, whereas previous films focused on the boxer’s victories.

“This one was on the downside of his career, a look at what he was like on a more human level – not that superstar, superhuman level we are used to seeing Mohammed Ali.”

Vaughan was offered the opportunity to meet Ali before he passed in June 2016, but he turned it down. He chose to hang on to the memory of his hero, versus seeing him in a fight for his life.

Vaughan said he does know that Ali saw “The Last Punch” before he passed and that he loved it.

“That means more to me than anything,” he said.

The film stars Karon Joseph Riley as Ali, Tony Grant as James Corenelius, Donald RonReaco Lee as Donald Rolles, and Keith David as Don King. It was written by Rueben Cannon Jr., Adisa Iwa and Michael Soccio.

Vaughan said he plans to give away his “10 secrets to directing” at 5 p.m. in a workshop he hosts before the film premiere. He wanted to host a workshop on directing feature films as a way to give back to the community.

The film stars Karon Joseph Riley as Ali, Tony Grant as James Corenelius, Donald RonReaco Lee as Donald Rolles, and Keith David as Don King.

The film stars Karon Joseph Riley as Ali, Tony Grant as James Corenelius, Donald RonReaco Lee as Donald Rolles, and Keith David as Don King.

“The Richmond International Film Festival is one of the best opportunities for people to be able to see artists from the local community and artists from around the world get together and really elevate the city as far as the promotion of motion pictures, documentaries, music videos and so for us as film makers, to be able to participate, it’s an honor…to elevate Richmond, worldwide,” Vaughan said. “There are people coming from all over the world and that is just a great chance in our community to see some fine work.”

CBS 6 news anchor Cheryl Miller will host a Q & A with Vaughan after the film.

RIFF runs from Feb. 27- March 5 at three different cinemas and five different music venues.

Click here for the Richmond International Film and Music Festival Guide

Click here to read more about the film festival itself