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Ken Burns' Muhammad Ali


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"Round One: The Greatest" covers Cassius Clay's birth and childhood up through the Sonny Liston fight in 1964.

Facets of the public persona we know, including the humor, the swagger, the unshakable confidence, were evident early. We learn of his father, Cash, and his influence on his son's views on race. We learn, or I learned, that Cassius had a younger brother, Rudy, of whom he was very protective. We learn how Clay, the thin class clown, got interested in boxing when he went looking for a cop to report his bike stolen and was directed to a basement gym, where the cop he was looking for was training boxers. The cop asked Clay, who was eager to catch the thief and punish him, whether he knew how to fight. Six weeks later, Clay would enter the ring for his first amateur bout. He weighed 87 pounds. 

Regarding race there is discussion of the murder of Emmett Till and how it affected the youth of the black community. There is a substantial sequence dedicated to Elijah Muhammad and the growing black separatist movement his Nation of Islam was part of, which leads to Malcom X and finally to Clay's association with him.

One commenter, Gerald Early, said of Clay that he was very much of a new generation, a confident black man who was also funny, but not a clown. There had been no public figure like him before. Certainly Joe Louis and Jesse Owens were remarkable athletes, but they were quiet, even deferential, where Clay was not only a gifted athlete, but an entertaining and inspiring figure. 

The climax is of course the title fight with Sonny Liston, about whom we are treated to a very sympathetic mini-biography that leads into a segment showing all the pre-fight press hoopla and training period, accompanied by the The Beatles playing "Hard Day's Night."

As usual in Florentine Films, there are rare photos and lots of video footage. If you are not a fight fan, do not fear: fight footage, some quite rare, is kept to the necessary minimum to tell the story. If you are a fight fan, you will want more. 

Watch it here

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Episode 2, "What's My Name" covers the post-title years when Clay became Ali, became a loyal follower of Elijah Muhammad, rejected Malcolm X, allied with Martin Luther King, claimed conscientious objector status, refused induction into the military, and was stripped of his title and license to fight. 

Ali seemed to have been a prize that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad fought over, and Malcolm lost. Malcolm X would be murdered by members of the Nation of Islam not long after his separation from them. Ali, for his part, became more and more loyal to his teacher, whose name he mentions far more often than that of Allah. I wondered, as I'm sure many did at the time, which figure Ali worshipped. (The word "cult" came up in the first episode, but it wasn't used in this one.)

Two fights are prominently featured. The November 1965 bout with Floyd Patterson went 12 rounds but could have ended in less than half that time but for Ali's desire to punish his challenger, who had publicly scolded him for his behavior. Ali hit Patterson hard enough to hurt him, someone said, but not enough to knock him out. It is a brutal segment. You have to have a cruel side, someone else said, to be champion fighter. Ali had one.

Then there is the 1967 bout with Ernie Terrell, who famously refused to call Ali anything but Cassius Clay - leading to the "What's my name!?" refrain heard from Ali by ringside reporters and microphones throughout the match. The first appearance of the Ali shuffle is seen here and it is very impressive. 

Also featured is the rematch with Sonny Liston, who trained to the best shape he'd been in maybe ever, only to have the fight date postponed  following hernia surgery on Ali. Sonny did not maintain his training regimen in the interim and he was not ready for the fight. If you missed the punch that knocked him down, you're not alone. Many did, leading some to wonder if Sonny didn't decide to fall down and stay down the first time Ali touched him. Sonny would fight again, though, and live five more years. We learn of his death and it is a sad story. 

Much of the episode discusses Ali's legal troubles relating to the draft, but we see him meet and marry his first wife, divorce her, meet and marry his second wife, before publicly saying he wants to return to the ring so that he can pay his bills. That comment led to a rebuke by Elijah Muhammad for being insufficiently loyal. Ali, uncharacteristically, expressed contrition and asked forgiveness. 

Lots of late 60s race and culture in this episode, and it isn't entirely pleasant to watch. At one point, we hear Ali expressing agreement with George Wallace in a desire for the races to separate and stay separated. A lot to wince at in this one. 

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"Round 3: The Rivalry" is almost all boxing. We get a very lively build-up to "The Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden; an account of a very confused Supreme Court ruling which seems based on nothing actually said in court; and we learn more about Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman, all set against the background of growing anti-Vietnam sentiment, urban unrest, and the rise of radicalism in America. 

In preparing for his eventual and inevitable match with Frazier, Ali is said by his doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, to have trained a little, but talked a lot. By that time, Ali had developed a taste for womanizing and was frequently unfaithful to his wife, Belinda, who took the kids back to Chicago, leaving Ali in Miami Beach where he had become the first black resident in the still-exclusive Octagon Towers, and where the Jewish ladies adored him.

Writer Todd Boyd said you can't talk about Muhammad Ali without talking about Joe Frazier. Frazier grew up working in the fields and warehouses of South Carolina where he had seen Joe Louis put on an exhibition fight, which prompted Frazier to make his own boxing dummy from a burlap bag filled with sand and bricks. Later he would move to Philadelphia where he would work in a slaughterhouse all day and train at night. He won the Olympics in 1964 and turned pro. Like Ali before he was stripped of his title, Frazier was undefeated, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Ali during his exile. Ali hounded the "clumsy, ugly, flat-footed Joe Frazier." Ali's insults, one commenter remarked, were the same as those that might be uttered by a racist white man. Frazier pointed out a key difference between the two men when he remembered that Ali became a boxer after his bike was stolen. Frazier didn't have a bike when he was a kid, he said. He was working in the fields.

The episode's centerpiece is of course their first bout, the March 8, 1971 match at Madison Square Garden. At the time, the $2.5 million guaranteed to each fighter was the largest contract in sports. Ringside tickets sold for $150, the equivalent of just over $1,000 today. Scalpers were getting up to $750 for them. Celebrities poured into MSG as if it were Oscar night. Frank Sinatra was there to take pictures for Life magazine. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are pictured. Hugh Hefner and Barbi Benton. Norman Mailer. President Nixon watched on a closed-circuit TV hook-up at the White House. Prior to the fight, Ali revealed via photograph his prediction, made weeks before. Frazier would fall, he wrote, in 6.

Ali entered the ring first, in red trunks and white shoes with red tassels, which he thought made him appear to move faster. Joe entered in green trunks with gold designs and a robe bearing the names of his children. They met in the center of the ring. "I'm gonna kill you," Frazier said.

During the first two rounds, Ali danced and moved in the familiar way. Two of the three judges awarded those rounds to him, but in round 3, he was not as mobile. He stood still, throwing combos, while Joe stayed low and took everything Ali threw. Joe kept coming in close, jabbing, bobbing, weaving, forcing Ali to miss. At one point Joe can be seen smiling at the obviously tired Ali, mocking him. "Mohammad wanted it," a commenter says, "but Joe needed it."

After 6, Joe still stood, in defiance of Ali's prediction. After 7 the crowd chanted "Ali! Ali!" After 8 they chanted "Joe! Joe! Joe!" Before the round 15 bell, Ali's corner told him what most people knew: he needed a knockout to win. 26 seconds into round 15, Frazier landed the left hook he'd made his name with, and Down. Went. Ali. He would get up and finish the right, but everyone knew who won. 




It was Ali's first professional loss. He did not appear at the post-fight press conference, but then I'm not sure Joe did either. Ali went to the hospital for a jaw x-ray, at Pacheco's insistence, but no fracture was found and Ali refused to stay overnight.

Hunter Thompson declared the loss "a proper end to the 60s." In Libya, Qaddafi declared a day of mourning. One commenter noted that the loss humanized Ali. It showed, he said, just how much he had truly sacrificed, and it won him new fans.

Joe rightly won the decision, but he was not unhurt. His face was badly swollen, like a gargoyle, one commenter accurately notes. In the following days, he would require hospitalization.

And Ali was still looking at possible prison time. "The petitioner does not want to fight the white man's war ... But that doesn't make him a pacifist," the Solicitor General told the Supreme Court, and five of the 8 justices agreed. (Thurgood Marshall had served as Solicitor General when the case began, and so recused.) But in writing the opinion, Justice Harlan's research found that Islam commanded that no Muslim fight in war unless commanded by Allah to do so. He changed his vote, which made it a 4-4 draw. Justice Stewart did some additional procedural research and found that the appeals court had never given a reason to Ali for denying him Conscientious Objector status. He wrote an opinion, passed it around, and all joined. The conviction was overturned. The way the account is told, it appears Ali won based on legal work by the justices, not by his attorney. 

I've gone on too long so I'll summarize the second hour quickly. It introduces us to the fighter who would break Ali's jaw, Ken Norton. We hear the original and now often-mimicked "Down! Goes! Fraziuh!" in the account of Norton's 1973 bout with Joe.  And we meet George Foreman, who had won 35 fights by knockout, took the title from Joe, and thereby also took a huge payday from Ali and Frazier for their rematch, which Ali won by decision in January 1974, and which meant nothing. We see a young Ali fan who would become a sparring partner and future champion, Larry Holmes. Finally, we meet a hustling boxing promoter, unexpectedly released from prison after a second-degree murder conviction, Don King, who would convince Ali and Foreman that he, not some white man, should handle their meeting, guaranteeing each fighter $5 million. How smooth a talker was he? He got George to sign three blank pages, promising to fill in the details later.

This was a quick two hours. 

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"Round 4: The Spell Remains" takes us from the title fight with George Foreman in Zaire in October 1974, the third fight with Joe Frazier in Manila one year later; through his loss and reclamation of a record third title against Leon Spinks; his retirement and his poorly advised return to boxing against Larry Holmes; and of course the diagnosis of Parkinson's disease and his final years. Every segment is stirring, or moving, or touching, or tragic, and ultimately quite satisfying. 

Images from the summer of 74, the summer of Nixon's resignation, are seen as the narrator talks about the rise of black nationalism, the election of black officials in many local offices, and the Nation of Islam receding from the public eye but expanding quietly, with assets in the tens of millions. 

Ali was considered a longshot against Foreman. He promoted himself as a champion of black nationalism and referred to George Foreman as the "Christian" and "the white man's hope."

Foreman is indeed described by one commenter as "the counter-revolutionary, who pulled the flag out of his trunks" at the same Olympics where the fists were raised. Ali said he was representing "the freedom of black people in America. To me it's a holy war."

The dictator of Zaire, Mobuto, staged the fight and spent a considerable sum of his country's treasury in hosting it. He provided his private plane to fly Ali and his entourage in, and housed Ali's large company at one of his compounds. George's quarters were less impressive. He would later move to a hotel.

While sparring, George suffered a cut over one eye. Stitches were not required, but he asked Don King to postpone the bout while he returned to America. "I knew if he went back to America," King tells us, "he wasn't coming back." When George ask to go to Belgium for a second opinion, Mobuto confiscated his passport. 

Meanwhile the locals loved Ali. "Kill him!" they would chant about Foreman when Ali appeared in public.

The fight began at 4.a.m. local time. It is depicted with music by Santana playing under the narration. Ali struck the first blow quickly in round 1. George swung half-wildly, hoping to land one good punch, knowing one was all he needed. In round 2 Ali used the ropes to let George take body shots while Ali rested his legs. Round 4 saw Ali deliver 6 straight shots to George's head, and with thirty seconds left in round 5, a series of punches and counter-punches had George, the knockout machine, staggering. By round 8, all George could do was swing what appear to be very tired arms that did little if any damage, until a flurry of punches from Ali sent him to the canvas. 




More than 10 years after being stripped of the title, Ali won it again, against a fighter whom it was feared might send him to the hospital, and in a highly symbolic setting for him. 

While in Zaire, Ali met Veronica Porché, a member of the promotions team. He told her he was planning to divorce his wife Khalilah. She believed him and agreed to see him, not knowing he was also seeing two other women in Zaire. He would later marry Veronica in a secret ceremony. When he moved to Chicago in 1974, he bought a nearby condo for her, unknown to Khalilah. 

In January 1975 Elijah Muhammad was hospitalized. Ali, still under banishment from the sect, visited to pay his respects. Upon his death, Elijah's son Wallace assumed leadership of The Nation of Islam and Ali embraced him and the changes he brought, more closely aligned to the traditional Sunni Muslim views, which for example, did not teach that white men were lab-created devils. 

Throughout 1974, Ali fought several lower ranked contenders. Both wives traveled with him. Khalilah had begun to introduce Veronica as Ali's other wife. "It gets very complicated," Veronica tells us. 

In July of 1975 came the announcement that Ali and Frazier would meet for their tie-breaking fight in Manila in October. Marcos had seen the public relations advantage enjoyed by Zaire and hoped for a similar result for the Philippines. 

In the months leading up to it, Ali taunted Joe mercilessly, to the point of infiltrating his training complex and heckling him as he sparred. One commenter said Ali was at his worst when he mistreated Joe Frazier. 

Joe had been known for his left hook, but he wanted a surprise for Ali and spent a lot of time developing his right. He said at one point to his trainer, Eddie Futch, "I'm gonna eat this half breeds heart right out of his chest." 

The fight segment is told with mournful, muted string music playing under the narration. A round 2 flurry from Ali hurt Joe, but in round 4 Joe landed the right he'd been working on, and in round 6, he landed a pair of left hooks. During round 7, Ali said, "Old Joe Frazier they told me you were washed up." Frazier answered, "They lied, pretty boy." 

By round 12 Frazier was fighting blind from blood pouring out over one eye, with the other one already weak. In 13, one series of punishing blows from Ali followed another, and by 14, Joe simply couldn't counter them anymore. At the end of the round, the referee had to steer Joe to his corner. 




Eddie Futch had seen 4 fighters die in the ring. "Joe," he told his fighter, who had instructed him beforehand under no circumstances to stop the fight, "It's over." The camera shows Ali sitting in the opposite corner, looking as if he himself might not be able to get off the stool, suddenly spring to his feet when he sees the fight has been stopped. The celebration didn't last long. Ali collapsed onto the canvas after being declared the winner. The fight had taken an incredible toll on both men. Ali would ****@te blood for weeks. "We went to Manila as champions," he would later say. "We came back as old men."

At this point, those who know what follows will wish he had retired then.

In his subsequent bouts he was unable to avoid punches he used to dodge. Medically he was told he risked kidney failure. Ferdie Pacheco, his fight doctor of 14 years, left. His father told him to quit before he got hurt. 

Soon Ali begins asking people if he sounds alright. Seems alright. Most people who cared about him wanted him retire, but somebody would always call about another fight, Veronica tells us. "Usually Herbert," his manager. "Herbert Muhammad grew to have certain lifestyle because of Muhammad."

Ali lost his title to a very young Leon Spinks, who had only seven wins before meeting Ali. Spinks took him by surprise in the first fight, but Ali trained harder for the rematch in September of 1978, and planned well. Looking at the two of them in the ring it looks like a mismatch, like a man fighting a boy. Ali easily won his third title. 

Signs that something wasn't right began to be noticed around this time by family members. It was assumed to be age, but he wasn't yet 40.

He retired quietly by letter relinquishing his title. He did commercials. He gave exhibitions, but he got bored and at age 38 he wanted back in.

"I taught him everything he knows," Ali said of Larry Holmes, "But I didn't teach him everything I know." Don King was then managing Holmes and he arranged for a $10 million payday for each fighter.

A July 1980 exam at the Mayo cleared him to fight. He died his hair black and lost weight. Thyroid pills provided by Herbert's doctor accelerated the weight loss. When Ali collapse during training, Herbert said it was too late cancel.

"Utterly no contest," Cosell announced from ringside, early.

"Like watching a friend get run over by a truck," one commenter tells us. 

Eventually Ali was bleeding from his left eye. Herbert Muhammad signaled for Dundee to stop the fight. Larry Holmes remembers he cried afterwards, and he cries before us as he recounts it.

Medically, Ali was said to have OD'd on thyroid pills. Pacheco said that we would see in a few years just how much damage that night did. 

Don King said he would advise against another fight but would promote one if asked, and inexplicably, there was another fight. The account of the Trevor Burbick fight is mercifully brief. A post fight photo of young Rashida embracing her Dad with her temple against his lips is shown as she  remembers her sister saying she wanted him to lose, knowing if he won he would fight again

In September of 1984, overweight and easily fatigued, with halting, hesitant speech, a shuffling gait, Ali was administered a series of tests and diagnosed with Parkinson's.

Veronica asked for divorce in 1985. "I just couldn't take it anymore," she said of the infidelities.

In November of 1986, Ali married his 4th wife. Lonnie, a hometown girl he had met years ago when she was a child. Lonnie got him out of shady businesses and got rid of the leeching hangers-on, and looked for other ways to make money

Ali's devotion to Islam grew. "Everything I do now I do to please Allah." He spoke of his disease as punishment but also a blessing to keep him humble. He expressed regret at his treatment of women, among other things.

His surprise appearance at the Olympic torch lighting ceremony is recounted, with commenters saying it was hard to watch. "You don't want to see your guy like that."

"This game that we asked him to play for us has left him looking like this. We feel guilty." 

"He can't hurt us now. He can't make us mad. We want to hug him and ask him to forgive us. Cause he was right."

Of Joe Frazier, Ali said, "I called him a lot of names I shouldn't have called him."

Of Malcolm X, "Turning my back on Malcom was one of my greatest mistakes. I wish I could tell him I was sorry."

Newsweek, Time, and Sports Illustrated all named him the Athlete of the Century.

He denounced the perpetrators of 9/11. "God is not behind assassins."

In 2005, George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

"It was difficult at the end because of the Parkinson's," Rashida tells us. "On the days when he sounded good," she remembers happily, "the sun came out."

On the evening of June 3, 2016, his respirator was disconnected. 

As photos of his funeral procession winding through Louisville are shown, his daughter remembers a dream he told her he often had, of running down Broadway and people suddenly surrounding him, and chanting his name. He would look at them, and begin to fly. As she looked around that day in the procession, she remembered. "This is his dream."

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