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Home #Hwoodtimes MUHAMMAD ALI: Ken Burns’ PBS Documentary Series

MUHAMMAD ALI: Ken Burns’ PBS Documentary Series

By Jim Gilles

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/14/21 – Beginning Sunday, September 20, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 PM on PBS is the new 4-part, 8-hour series about the famous 20th century boxer Muhammad Ali. Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, the series running four consecutive nights brings to life Muhammad Ali, one of the most indelible figures of the 20th century, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated millions of fans across the world with his mesmerizing combination of speed, grace, and power in the ring, and charm and playful boasting outside of it. Ali insisted on being himself unconditionally and became a global icon and inspiration to people everywhere. Narrated by Keith David, the series includes iconic photographs and much archival footage as well as televised boxing matches. Ali thrived in the spotlight at a time when many fighters let their managers do the talking, and he was often provocative and outlandish. He was known for trash-talking, and often free-styled with rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry, anticipating elements of hip hop.

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MUHAMMAD ALI “Round One: The Greatest (1942-1964)” 2-hour episode. Premieres Sunday, September 19, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET  Cassius Clay rose up the amateur ranks to win a Gold Medal in Boxing at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He turned professional, sharpening his boxing skills and honing his genius for self-promotion. In 1964, he upset Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion at the age of 22.

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Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) with Gold Olympic Metal – Rome 1960

Cassius Marcellus Clay was born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. He got his good looks from his mother. Papa Cassius believed that he was held back by the color of his skin and worked as an artist, although he was only employed as a sign painter and did church murals. He was abusive at times to his wife and also an unrepentant womanizer. The Clays’ lived in their own house in a Black middle and working-class neighborhood. Cassius’ Brother Rudy was a year and a half younger. In Louisville, Kentucky, the boys attended totally segregated schools. Cassius said that the news of the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 impacted his views on racism. At school, Cassius struggled to read and struggled with math. He was dyslexic, and often acted as the class clown.  People loved to be around him.

Cassius Clay & Drew Bundini Brown

By chance, young Cassius Clay met a white police officer named Joe Martin at the local Community center and he was running a boxing training gym. Lessons were free. 6 weeks later, young Cassius was already in a match and bragging about his victory. He was unusually quick and agile, able to avoid punches by leaning back. From the start, Cassius Clay understood much about diet and proper exercise habits, including running. His strategy was to sell tickets to his own matches. Often, he was absent from high school and competing in amateur boxing matches. At age 16, he went to Chicago from Louisville to compete in the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. Although he lost in the Quarter Finals. He was back one year later – taller and heavier. He defeated 29-year-old Tony Madigan (a two-time Olympian, from Australia). Cassius Clay was now the Golden Gloves Light Heavy-Weight Champion.

Cassius Clay got his first big chance for the 1960 Rome Olympics in a try-out at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Clay defeated his first two opponents and advanced to the finals where he faced Alan Hudson – Clay got a technical knock-out. He thus earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Despite his poor academic performance in high school, the principal decided to let Cassius graduate. At the Olympics in Rome, he posed for photos with Floyd Patterson and even made friends with the Russians. In the final match at the Olympics against a Polish boxer, Cassius Clay won the Golden Medal for amateur boxing. He was only 18 and already fought more than 100 amateur boxing matches. Back in New York City from Rome, Cassius discovered the newspaper Muhammad Speaks of the Nation of Islam, headed by Elijah Muhammad, where the Black people were told that they should only shop at black-owned stores and eat in black-owned restaurants, avoiding white people as the very devil.

Cassius Clay as a Boy

Clay was ready to turn professional. During the Great Depression, boxing was a major sport in America and boxer Joe Lewis, was the first black heavy-weight, holding the title for 12 years. Later the Mafia controlled the sport and fixed the betting. There was no real governance to boxing and the Mob extracted huge sums of money from fighters. Rocky Marciano offered to train Cassius Clay. A syndicate of eleven prominent white businessmen from Louisville, Kentucky, headed up by William Faversham, launched Clay’s career and shielded him from the Mob. He got a salary of $10,000 and they paid for all his expenses, training, housing, food. Clay bought his first Cadillac. In October 1960, Clay had his professional debut as a boxer against Tony Hutsinger and eventually had Angelo Dundee, a Miami-based trainer in a funky gym in an all Black neighborhood in Miami. Cassius’ best punch was the jab. With his fast leg movement, he literally danced on the floor of the boxing ring.

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Cassius Clay knocks out Sonny Liston – 1964

We follow Cassius Clay through a number of fights and so many wins that by age 19, he was already 10 and 0. He loved verbal warfare – “not only will I beat you in the ring but I am going to tell you how bad I am going to beat you.” “I’ve got the height, the reach, the weight, the speed. To beat me, you gotta be greater than great.” While training in Miami, Clay started visiting a vacant store front turned into a mosque (Temple 29) by the Nation of Islam. “The first time I felt truly spiritual in my life.” The Nation of Islam preached that God was black and there was no chance of reconciliation with white people who had deliberately stolen the black man’s identity. Elijah Muhammad reached black separation and self-determination. Wanted clean living and assigned new surnames to replace white slave ones.

Muhammad Ali with Olympic torch at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta

In January. 17, 1962, at the age of 20, Cassius Clay was out to break Floyd Patterson’s record.  His handlers arranged for the Clay vs. Sonny Banks match in Madison Square Gardens in New York City. Clay boasted that Banks would fall in the 4th round and that is exactly what happened. Many older white sports writers found Cassius rude to his opponents before a fight, insulting them, mocking them, nothing like the revered Joe Lewis. In 1962 Cassius and his brother Rudy invited to a Nation of Islam rally in Detroit by Abdul Rahman. There he met Malcolm X, who became an important teacher for Cassius Clay and a good friend.

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By the end of 1962, Cassius Clay was ranked No. 4 among Heavy-Weight contenders. In September 1962, the heavy-weight champion was Floyd Patterson, who was scheduled to fight Sonny Liston, in Chicago. In the ring, Liston was almost unbeatable, with a pile driver of a left hand. He had won 17 of his first 18 matches, once out of prison in Missouri. James Baldwin felt that Patterson was the moral favorite. People felt that Liston’s victory would be a moral disaster. Two minutes and 26 seconds to become heavy-weight champion for Liston.

Muhammad Ali praying in a Sunni Islamic mosque

Boxing was a failing sport. Rumor had it that everything was fixed by the Mob. Fights were now televised and too brutal for many Americans. There was considerable pressure to ban the sport. Cassius Clay was cocky and his verbal taunts began his trademark: “I am somebody. I am the greatest.” “I am pretty. Most fighters are ugly.” In the summer of 1963, Clay went to London to defeat England’s Henry Cooper in the 5th Round. He began bragging that he could put Sonny Liston down in 8 rounds. Finally, a match was scheduled for February 1964 between Clay and Liston. It was a deal that would gross Clay $1 million. He believed that the great boxers relied on footing, rhythm, and timing – not Just power. He figured he could outlast Liston and prepared for a possible 15 rounds. Training with Drew Bundini Brown, Clay made famous his mantra: “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” By the time of the match in Miami, Clay was 8 to 1 the underdog. But Clay was taller and broader than Liston. By Round 8, he had beaten an exhausted Sonny Liston to a pulp and became the Heavy-Weight Champion of the World at age 22. To the excited newspaper men, he acclaimed: “I am still pretty.” By the next morning, he again appeared before the press, much subdued: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be who I want to be.” And so Muhammad Ali was born.

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MUHAMMAD ALI “Round Two: What’s My Name? (1964-1970)” 2-hour episode. Premieres Monday, September 20, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET Cassius Clay publicly joined the Nation of Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali. When he refused induction into the Army, he was stripped of his title and forced into exile. After three years he returned to the ring, but he had lost a step as an athlete. On March 6, 1964, he announced that he no longer would be known as Cassius Clay but as Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, Malcolm X grew disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, and its leader Elijah Muhammad. He subsequently embraced Sunni Islam and the civil right movement after completing the Hajj to Mecca. Throughout 1964, Malcolm X’s conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, and he was repeatedly sent death threats. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City. Three Nation of Islam members were charged with the murder and given indeterminate life sentences. Speculation about the assassination and whether it was conceived or aided by leading or additional members of the Nation, or with law enforcement agencies, have persisted for decades after the shooting.

On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He was stripped of his boxing titles. He stayed out of prison as he appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971. But he had not fought for nearly four years and lost a period of peak performance as an athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation, and he was a very high-profile figure of racial pride for African Americans during the civil rights movement and throughout his career. As a Muslim, Ali was initially affiliated with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. He later disavowed the Nation of Islam, adhering to Sunni Islam, and supporting racial integration like his former mentor Malcolm X.

MUHAMMAD ALI “Round Three: The Rivalry (1970-1974)” 2-hour episode. Premieres Tuesday, September 21, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET  Muhammad Ali battled his fiercest rival, Joe Frazier, and the U.S. government, as he attempted to regain the heavyweight title. He was involved in several historic boxing matches and feuds, most notably his fights with Joe Frazier, including the Fight of the Century on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This was the biggest boxing event up to that date. Muhammad Ali lost to Frazier at that time. Ali refused to publicly admit defeat and sought to define the outcome in the public’s mind as a “White Man’s Decision.” Frazier lost the title 22 months later, when he was knocked down six times in the first two rounds by George Foreman in their brief but devastating January 22, 1973, title bout in Kingston, Jamaica. Ali split two bouts with Ken Norton in 1973, and was viewed by many as on a downward slide before a win in a rematch – Ali-Frazier II – in January 1974.

Ali later went on to defeat Frazier in their third and final bout, “The Thrilla in Manila.”  By the time of the rematches the social climate in America had settled down, with the Vietnam War having ended in early 1973. Many dismissed the notion that Ali was a traitor and he was once again accepted as the heavyweight champion. People who had supported Frazier on political and racial grounds in the first bout so they could see Ali get beat were less effusive and abandoned him after he lost his championship. Without the same social divide; with the unknown of whether Ali could ever regain enough of his former greatness to dominate post-layoff partially answered; and without the impetus of two unbeaten champions meeting one-another for the first time, neither their second nor third would attain the unprecedented hype of the first. As Wilfrid Sheed, Ali biographer, explains about the fight: “Both men left the ring changed men that night. For Frazier, his greatness was gone, that unquantifiable combination of youth, ability and desire. For Ali, the public hatred he had so carefully nursed to his advantage came to a head and burst that night and has never been the same. To his supporters he became a cultural hero. His detractors finally gave him grudging respect. At least they had seen him beaten and seen that smug look wiped off his face.”

MUHAMMAD ALI “Round Four: The Spell Remains (1974-2016)” 2-hour episode. Premieres Wednesday, September 22, 2021, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET   In October 1974, Muhammad Ali shocked the world with a victory in Kinshasa, Zaire over the heavily favored Foreman to regain the heavyweight title in “The Rumble in the Jungle.” The fight with George Foreman was watched by a record estimated television audience of 1 billion viewers worldwide, the most-watched live television broadcast at the time.  But later went on to defeat in their third and final bout, “The Thrilla in Manila.” By defeating George Foreman, he won back the heavyweight title and became one of the most famous men on earth. After retiring in 1981, he traveled the world spreading his Islamic faith, and became a symbol of peace and hope.

Outside the ring, Ali attained success as a spoken word artist, where he received two Grammy nominations. He also featured as an actor and writer, releasing two autobiographies. Ali retired from boxing in 1981 and focused on religion, philanthropy and activism. In 1984, he made public his diagnosis of Parkinson’s syndrome, which some reports attribute to boxing-related injuries, though he and his specialist physicians disputed this. He remained an active public figure globally, but in his later years made fewer public appearances as his condition worsened, and he was cared for by his family. On 19 July 1995, Muhammad Ali held the torch before lighting the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016.