How could someone opposed, and in some cases hated, by large swathes of American society at the peak of his career become a widely beloved figure — quite possibly the most famous person in the world — decades later?
Filmmaker Ken Burns attempts to answer this question, among many others, in his new four-part documentary looking at the life and times of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. An American original if ever there was one, Ali’s life and career navigated questions of race, religion, expression, and politics, not to mention the history of boxing – a sport deep-rooted in American history and culture.
The documentary represents Burns’ latest foray into the nexus of boxing and American culture. His 2004 documentary “Unforgiveable Blackness” examined the rise and fall of Jack Johnson. The first African American heavyweight champion, Johnson faced racism and abuse during his stint as champion, most notably via a trumped-up violation of the Mann Act that amounted to criminal prosecution because Johnson had the temerity to date white women. He eventually served a year in jail for this “offense,” though President Donald Trump (rightly) gave him a posthumous pardon in 2018.
Ali himself saw parallels between Johnson’s life and his own. In 1968, Ali attended a Broadway performance of “The Great White Hope,” which chronicled the attempts more than 50 years earlier to find a Caucasian boxer who could wrest the title away from Johnson. Ali told James Earl Jones, who played the Johnson character in the play, that “take out the interracial love stuff and Jack Johnson is the original me …Only the details are different.”
Rise from Jim Crow South
But the political controversy that surrounded Ali’s career after he refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War did not appear during the years covered by the initial episode of Burns’ documentary. The first two hours study the meteoric rise of the pugilist, culminating in his championship bout against Sonny Liston in 1964.
Two themes appear in the first episode that followed Ali throughout his life, the first and most obvious being race. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville in 1942, both he and his father Cassius Sr. were named for a famous 19th-century Republican politician and abolitionist. This is somewhat ironic considering Ali later called his birth moniker his “slave name.”
Clay grew up in a segregated community as the civil rights movement began to emerge. Not long after he began boxing at the age of 12, the brutal murder of Emmett Till, who was beaten, disfigured, and slaughtered for having spoken to a white woman, deeply affected the young Clay, who was only six months younger than Till himself. The incident prompted justified anger throughout the African American community, and a renewed desire to fight for civil rights.
Yet at first, Clay shied away from any overt political statements regarding civil rights or anything else. When he turned professional following his gold medal victory at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Clay boasted a group of Louisville businessmen, many of them white, who agreed to help the black boxer underwrite his burgeoning career. The boosters paid him a salary — largely unheard of in the fight game — and, by agreeing to assume much of the financial risk of his fights, meant Clay would not have to consort with the mobsters that ruled much of boxing in the 1960s.
As his career began to rise, Clay weighed the potential impact his public statements would have on his future prospects. In 1962 and 1963, he began exploring the Nation of Islam, and interacting with its leaders, particularly Malcolm X. But he kept the extent and nature of his involvement secret, with Malcolm X departing from the boxer’s camp just before the Liston fight, because he did not want to jeopardize his chance for a shot at the title.
Another theme throughout the first episode, and Ali’s life in general: His gift of gab for good and for ill. Archival footage shows Cassius Clay’s mother saying he began speaking before he was one — a skill that, once acquired, he would often employ.
Well before he became a household and worldwide name, the young Clay used his showmanship to sell tickets to his matches door-to-door in Louisville, helping to generate a solid return for his boosters and himself. After seeing an appearance by Gorgeous George while on a trip to Las Vegas, the young Clay decided to borrow the professional wrestler’s schtick — polished boots, gleaming white trunks, a Vaseline rub to make his torso shine, and no small amount of braggadocio — to attract women to his matches, and the press to his accomplishments.
At a time when boxing had begun to become moribund, Clay’s “trash talking” won him headlines, and won the sport new interest. For a time, some observers wondered whether his skill in predicting when he would knock out his opponents meant his matches were fixed (a common occurrence in those days).
But Sonny Liston saw the psychological effects of the “Louisville Lip’s” rhetoric. In the days and weeks leading up to their fight, Clay’s unending stunts both got under Liston’s skin, and made the latter think the former something of a pushover or someone who spent more time working his mouth than his arms and fists. After six rounds in Miami, however, Liston had seen enough; he failed to answer the bell for the seventh, making Clay the new heavyweight champion at the ripe old age of 22.
Shortly after the fight, the new champ officially joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The public transformation led to a series of controversies that defined his life — the conflict between racial integration and the black separatist movement, Ali’s refusal to accept getting drafted during the Vietnam War, and the impact that athletes and other celebrities can, or should, have on politics and culture. Those issues permeated society in the United States and worldwide, making Muhammad Ali’s battles outside the ring even more memorable than the champion’s fights within it.
Episodes two through four of Muhammad Ali will air September 20, 21, and 22 on most local PBS stations, and are also available online.