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'Muhammad Ali' packs a punch: Boxer’s four-part documentary tells his story in and out of the ring

by Renarda A. Williams, Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 12, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.
Cassius Clay’s handlers hold him back after he is announced the new heavyweight champion of the world after knocking out Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1965, in Miami. Bundini Brown embraces Ali. Luis Sarria runs to the group with a smile on the right. (Courtesy of PBS)

The sports headlines of 2021 have included stories of young athletes of color — most notably, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles — taking stands for their personal rights and well-being in matters such as mental health and competition readiness. Just a few years ago, Colin Kaepernick essentially sacrificed a professional football career to kneel in protest of police brutality and racial injustice during the playing of the national anthem at games.

And decades before these athletes, a young, Black, Kentucky-born boxer — known first by his birth name, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., then as Mohammad Ali — temporarily sidelined his career and nearly gave up his freedom because of his refusal to complete the U.S. Army induction process as a Vietnam War-era draftee.

Does Ken Burns see the stances taken by today's athletes of color as a continuation of Ali's' legendary outspokenness and adherence to his viewpoints in race, religion and other matters?

"Yes; of course I think it's a kind of continuation," the noted filmmaker says. "And yet there's something really, really different ... The themes of Muhammad Ali that he brings up are of course, first and foremost, freedom, but I think the other one is of courage. He was willing to risk so much — to give up, to lose for three and a half years at the peak of his career, his chosen profession of boxing because he was taking what Americans saw as a political stand ... rather than a religious stand; because he was a man of faith and was not going to go against the dictates of his faith, at that time."

Ken Burns
Ken Burns

Burns — known for rousing documentaries that tell the complete stories of people, events, pastimes and music genres ("Jazz," "The War," "Country Music," "Jackie Robinson," "Baseball" "The Civil War," "The Vietnam War") introduces his newest project, "Muhammad Ali," a four-part documentary that will air 7-9 p.m. Sept. 19-22 on PBS.

"The film follows the life of one of the most consequential men of the 20th century, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated billions of fans with his combination of speed, agility and power in the ring, and his charm, wit and outspokenness outside of it," according to a news release.

A production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, "Muhammad Ali" was directed and executive produced by Burns.

The film uses archival footage, photographs, music and commentaries to tell Ali's story. Chronicled are his greatest fights, including his battles with noted rival Joe Frazier in the "Fight of the Century" and the "Thrilla in Manila" and his defeat of George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle," which restored to him the heavyweight title that had been taken from him years earlier. His life a study in contradictions, Ali was at different times in his life a hated figure and a beloved figure in the eyes of the public and the media

The film looks closely into Ali's much-criticized resistance to the Vietnam War and his Muslim faith — as well as his "complex" relationships with his greatest influencers per that faith: Malcolm X, and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Also explored is Ali's resistance to being drafted into the Army due to his religious beliefs, and the resulting legal and career consequences.

Muhammad Ali stands over fallen Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing, shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw in Lewiston, Maine on May 25, 1965. (Courtesy of PBS)
Muhammad Ali stands over fallen Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing, shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw in Lewiston, Maine on May 25, 1965. (Courtesy of PBS)


Among the host of historians, writers and other topic experts who contributed to the film were University of Southern California professor of media studies Todd Boyd, author Howard Bryant, Washington University history professor Gerald Early, longtime Burns collaborator and author Geoffrey C. Ward, Rutgers journalism professor Khadijah White, MIT history professor Craig Wilder, and writer David Zirin. Jonathan Eig, a biographer of Ali, was a consulting producer to the film. "Muhammad Ali" includes interviews with Ali's daughters, Hana Ali and Rasheda Ali; his second wife, Khalilah Ali; his third wife, Veronica Porche; and his brother, Rahman Ali. Others appearing in the film include activist and former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; boxing promoters Don King and Bob Arum; childhood friends Vic Bender and Owen Sitgraves; former heavyweight boxing champions Larry Holmes and Michael Bentt; sportswriters Jerry Izenberg and author Bryant; law professor and co-founder of the Weather Underground Bernardine Dohrn; journalist and Ali biographer Jonathan Eig; poet and activist Nikki Giovanni; civil rights activist Jesse Jackson; friend and business manager Gene Kilroy; journalist Salim Muwakkil; longtime friend Abdul Rahman; historian Randy Roberts; Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka; and writer Gay Talese.

The film is narrated by Keith David, who also lent his voice talents to such Burns projects as "Jazz," "Mark Twain," "The War," "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," and "Jackie Robinson." Burns' daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, serve as directors, writers and producers.

"Ali is rightly celebrated for his athleticism in the ring," Sarah Burns states in the news release, "but he was equally heroic in his willingness to stand up for what he believed was right."

McMahon, in his statement, concurs.

"Ali's principled opposition to the Vietnam War and deeply affecting message of racial pride were remarkable then and equally so now. His actions and words speak to his character and also to his influence as an athlete who used his celebrity to speak out about injustices that he could not tolerate."

Malcolm X and family pose for a photo with Cassius Clay on a trip to Miami in January 1964. (Courtesy of PBS)
Malcolm X and family pose for a photo with Cassius Clay on a trip to Miami in January 1964. (Courtesy of PBS)

The film's four parts:

"Round One: The Greatest" (1942-1964) covers Clay's rise from amateur boxer to heavyweight-champion contender.

"Round Two: What's My Name?" (1964-1970) chronicles Ali's ban from boxing after refusing induction into the Army.

"Round Three: The Rivalry" (1970-1974) focuses on Ali's rivalry with Joe Frazier.

"Round Four: The Spell Remains" (1974-2016) tells of Ali's defeat of George Foreman and the culmination of his fame.

Tidbits that casual fans of Ali may not have known: That the young Clay was shielded from the mob — who controlled boxing at the time — by 13 white, wealthy Kentucky businessmen who formed a syndicate to support him. That young Clay took attention-getting inspiration from the flamboyant wrestler Gorgeous George. That while trash-talking he correctly predicted not only his victories over his rivals, but even the rounds in which he would defeat them. That the song "A White Man's Heaven Is a Black Man's Hell," (by Louis X, now Louis Farrakhan, current Nation of Islam leader) served as the beginning of Clay's interest in the Nation of Islam. That the Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation, gave Clay his new name. Burns fans, meanwhile, will recognize his tendency to offer up fascinating documentaries-within-documentaries, as he does with Frazier.

Muhammad Ali (center) and Leon Spinks speak at a news conference on Feb. 15, 1978, in Las Vegas after Spinks beat Ali to win the heavyweight championship from the aging champ. (Courtesy of PBS)
Muhammad Ali (center) and Leon Spinks speak at a news conference on Feb. 15, 1978, in Las Vegas after Spinks beat Ali to win the heavyweight championship from the aging champ. (Courtesy of PBS)


Drawing Burns to the task of taking on Ali's story was his awareness that "[Ali] is one of the most important figures at any point in American history," he says. "His life intersects with all of the main themes, issues of the last half of the 20th century, from sports and the role of sports, the role of a Black athlete, to race — of course, to faith, to religion, to politics, to war. It's hard to think of something in which his life didn't intersect with, and all of that is still meaningful to us today.

"He's simply the greatest athlete of the 20th century, and yet he was a lot more than that, so he's worthy of the four episodes and eight hours that we've spent the last seven years devoted to trying to tell."

Burns says that during the process of making the film, and learning about Ali in that process, "every day was a surprise."

"We know that there are a lot of really great documentaries on Muhammad Ali" focusing on, for instance, single fights, a series of fights, and Ali's battle with the U.S. government over the war in Vietnam, he says. "We wanted to be comprehensive." So he and his crew took up the mantle of telling the boxer's entire life story — from the birth of Cassius Clay and his childhood in Louisville Ky., to Ali's death from complications of Parkinson's disease, in 2016.

"He was a big, deep dive," Burns says, "and [we] definitely wanted to get into boxing and learn the contours and interiors of those ... fights that we felt were important to highlight. But we also wanted to see his evolving spiritual journey as he embraces — as a young man, a teenager, really — the Nation of Islam, which is a separatist religious [organization] going ... in the opposite direction of the traditional civil rights movement of that period.

"I think for me, the thing that stands out is that we tend to think of him only as this loudmouth, brash, funny, charismatic guy. And then when Parkinson's hit, it sort of silenced him, but in fact he [conveys] a wisdom, and an intelligence, and a gift for knowing what His purpose was in life."

Burns adds that he was impressed by the fact that even when Ali was young, "so quite often in the midst of all the bluster he'll stop, and he'll just speak so frankly and so intelligently that it's mind blowing."

One example of this was Ali's comments after the Supreme Court liberated him from what was to have been a five-year prison sentence for draft evasion on a technicality.

"He could have danced and made up a poem and ... bragged and whatever," but he didn't, Burns notes. "Somebody shoved a microphone in his face and said, 'What do you think about the system?' And he says, 'Well, I don't know who's going to be assassinated tonight. I don't know who's going to be denied justice or equality.' I mean, he didn't take it ... as this victory for himself. He looked back across 350 years of Black life on this continent ... and then all the way forward — the names that we didn't yet know, like Rodney King and Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd; the list is, unfortunately, nearly endless."

Muhammad Ali is surrounded by young students during a visit to his old grammar school in Louisville, Ky, circa 1977. (Courtesy of PBS)
Muhammad Ali is surrounded by young students during a visit to his old grammar school in Louisville, Ky, circa 1977. (Courtesy of PBS)


How, if at all, would Burns compare Ali and his story with boxer Jack Johnson, whose life he chronicled in "Unforgivable Blackness"?

Both films carry a theme of freedom, particularly for a Black man, But Jack Johnson was just for himself, Burns says. Not only were white people trying to find a way to defeat him, but he worried a lot of middle-class Black people who thought that he would reverse the progress of Blacks in the country — "not by his victories, but by his behavior, his unwillingness to sort of join a cause or care about anything.

"I think the biggest thing is that Muhammad Ali was for all of us. He was for everybody. He shared; he wanted his success to be the world's success. And while they had similar talents and similar aims and experiences, Muhammad Ali is really a kind of apostle of love, and Jack Johnson was not."

Not that Ali didn't have his share of flaws.

"And we aren't afraid to point them out," Burns says, citing Ali's abandonment of his friend, Malcolm X; the names he called his boxing rival, Joe Frazier — "names that only a white racist would call a Black man" (Frazier never forgave these insults), and his marital unfaithfulness. "But he wanted to work on that, and cared about that and cared about everybody else. So when he died five years ago, he died the most beloved person on the planet, which isn't such a bad thing."

Burns notes how, at the end of the film, Ali's daughter Rasheda pinches her fingers together to show that boxing was actually a small part of what her father was about.

"He could have been a simple carpenter — and we know in the history of human beings how far simple carpenters have gone," Burns says. "So I think that we had to understand him as this person with great purpose and love in his heart. And that may be the overwhelming message of the whole film, despite the fact that his day job [was] one of the most brutal sports there is."

Muhammad Ali comes through a doorway draped in a United States flag at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami on Feb. 25, 1971. (Courtesy of PBS)
Muhammad Ali comes through a doorway draped in a United States flag at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami on Feb. 25, 1971. (Courtesy of PBS)


And yes, Burns says, he's happy about the outspokenness of today's athletes.

"I'm happy that we're addressing issues of race and mental health and things that are hugely important to the national discussion. I think that Muhammad Ali remains the polestar. He's the No. 1 inspiration.

"If you read the Constitution, you know that every citizen, every child of God, has an opportunity to express their opinion, and I'm very glad that athletes are using their positions to speak to a great number of people. The big distinction is nobody has risked as much and as willingly as Muhammad Ali."

"Muhammad Ali" was preceded by "Conversations on Muhammad Ali," a summer-long series presented by PBS and The Undefeated virtually on Zoom. Beginning in June, the one-hour events have covered a theme from the film and included a discussion with the filmmakers and special guests. The remaining event, "Ali, Activism & The Modern Athlete" with Burns and moderator Raina Kelley, will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday. For more information and to register, visit

“Muhammad Ali”

Ken Burns’ four-part film airs 7-9 p.m. Sept. 19-22, PBS; available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video app. (PBS station members can view the documentary via PBS Passport as part of a full collection of Ken Burns films.)


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