10 things we learned about Muhammad Ali from Ken Burns’ epic documentary

One of the titans of 20th century popular culture, “The Greatest” was hardly a wallflower, and his oversized and well-documented life has supported biographers, historians, and filmmakers for decades. An Academy Award was won for single fight profiling; the recent feature film “One Night In Miami” evoked quite a narrative from a footnote in the story; Marcus A. Clarke’s documentary “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” hit Netflix just over a week ago.

The bottom line is that it’s not easy to shed light on a character who has jumped so blazingly into the spotlight, and shuffled, dodged, and dived to make sure he stays there. Come in, Ken Burns.

As evidenced by his sprawling and masterful “The Vietnam War” of 2017, Burns is not the type to simply recognize but to relish the context. It may take a while to receive the complete image, but the portrait is richer.

Now he turned to Ali. Eight-hour long (divided into four episodes), “Muhammad Ali” ran for seven years and features interviews with close friends, family members, experts and leading figures in culture, selections of over 15,000 photographs and intimate footage that even Ali’s daughter Rasheda had never seen before. . So yes, we could call it exhaustive. But still the question: Why?

“He’s the greatest athlete of the 20th century,” Burns told CNN. “I’d be happy to sit on a bar stool and say he’s the greatest athlete of all time – period.

“His life and professional life intersected with all the main issues of the second half of the 20th century, which obviously have to do with sport and the role of sport in society and also race and politics and faith and Islam and war … He’s just the most compelling figure in all of sports. “

The director shares that he has a neon sign in his editing costume that says “it’s complicated”. The same applies to Ali’s life. Along with the familiar heroism, Burns gives Ali’s ugly side – bullying, promiscuity – a lot of space. “There is no message” to the documentary, he insists, “we are in the business of history”.

“All of human life is complicated and contradictory and at times controversial, but there is a majesty in this particular life, and I don’t think I have met an American as full of wit and sense of purpose as (Ali),” says Burns.

Walking Ali’s life is a well-marked path for boxing fans, but because of the sheer volume of gear Burns had on hand, there are still a few surprises. Here are some lesser-known anecdotes about Ali from the series.

Ali’s fear of flying was so extreme that he once carried a parachute

Cassius Clay, before changing his name to Muhammad Ali, pictured on his way back to the United States after beating Henry Cooper in 1963.

When a young Cassius Clay traveled from Louisville to San Francisco for the Olympic Trials, the amateur boxer was so afraid of flying that he bought a military parachute and carried it during the flight. When he won the competition, he pledged one of his prizes, a watch, to pay for a train ticket home.

Ali’s corner once put ice cubes in his shorts in the middle of the fight

Cassius Clay fights Henry Cooper at Wembley Stadium, London, June 18, 1963.

Fighting Henry Cooper in the UK in June 1963, so Clay took a huge left hook seconds before the end of round four. The bell arrived just in time for the American, whose corner did everything to wake him up for the next round. It meant he could feel salt floating under his nose and ice cubes in his shorts. It worked – he came back swinging and won in the fifth when the ref decided Cooper was too badly cut and bloodied to continue.

Before their bitter rivalry, Ali and Joe Frazier first met as friends

Joe Frazier, photographed in 1968.

A young Frazier was 14-0 when he walked into an Ali practice session and showed up. Ali said he would fight the newcomers in two years if he continued to do what he was doing and sent Frazier with an autographed photo. It took longer than that, but in March 1971 the two undefeated boxers finally met.

Racists have already mailed a decapitated dog to Ali

Muhammad Ali leaving the Federal Building in Houston on June 19, 1967 during his trial for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces.

Ali’s legal dispute over his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War is well chronicled in Burns’ documentary, including the horrific racist vitriol the boxer faced as a result. Convicted of draft fraud in 1967 and stripped of his boxing license and title, Ali was forced into the backcountry of boxing in his early years. Prior to his 1970 return fight against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, he was sent a box with a beheaded black dog inside and a note that read, “We know how to deal with black dogs that dodge the draft in. Georgia.” Ali’s status as a conscientious objector would ultimately be claimed when the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the 8-0 conviction in 1971.

When Ali lost to Frazier, Muammar Gaddafi declared a day of mourning

Muhammad Ali evades a punch from Joe Frazier during "The fight of the century"  at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 8, 1971.
When Frazier won “Fight of the Century” on March 8, 1971, Ali fans were bowled over. The fight was broadcast around the world and audiences were mesmerized by the $ 5 million fight. Hunter S. Thompson described the result as “a very painful experience in every way,” and Libyan President Gaddafi declared a day of mourning, Burns reports. (The dictator would later decide the sport was too violent and ban it in his own country.)

He once received a boxing gown from Elvis Presley

Muhammad Ali with his daughter Maryum "May May"  Ali in 1988, wearing the boxing dress donated by Elvis Presely that he would donate to the Hard Rock Café in New York.

And it was pure ’70s Elvis. Ali wore the dress for his March 1973 fight against former six-foot-three navy Ken Norton. White and jeweled and with blue letters on the back stating “People’s Choice,” the gift did not prove to be a lucky charm, with Norton inflicting Ali’s second professional loss.

Mobutu Sese Seko from Zaire confiscated George Foreman’s passport ahead of “The Rumble in the Jungle”

President of Zaire Mobutu Sese Seko (center) holds the arms of George Foreman (left) and Ali in the air in Kinshasa on September 22, 1974 before the so-called fight

After spending all that money to finance “The Rumble in the Jungle”, the 1974 mega-fight between Ali and Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), dictatorial leader Mobutu was not going to leave anything behind. ‘Stop. Ali and Foreman both trained in Zaire in separate camps before the fight. When Foreman was cut above his right eye in a workout, his doctor said it would take weeks to heal and requested a postponement. The boxer wanted to travel to France or Belgium for a second opinion, but Mobutu said no – he allegedly confiscated his passport. The fight was postponed for a little over a month and the two boxers remained in place.

At the end of his career, Ali dyes his hair

Ali sits in his corner during his loss to Larry Holmes in 1980.

Even the most casual boxing fans know that Ali kept boxing for too long, with his body suffering needless punishment long after his reputation as a taller was secured. But in 1980, when Ali, 38, stepped into the ring with Larry Holmes, he was showing his age and dyeing his hair black to hide the gray. It didn’t turn back the years – Ali was pummeled by Holmes. “It was like watching a friend get run over by a truck,” sports reporter Dave Kindred told Burns.

He was an expert in magic

Muhammad Ali and American actor Ed Asner meet Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Cuba in an undated photograph.

Ali met Fidel Castro in 1996, when the former champion was largely unable to speak due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease. However, he was still an artist and therefore performed magic tricks for the Cuban leader. But, believing that cheating on Islam was against Islam, Ali showed Castro exactly how he had done them right after.

Ali initially refused to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta ’96

Muhammad Ali uses the Olympic torch to light the Olympic flame as swimmer Janet Evans, right, watches the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, July 19, 1996.

By the mid-1990s, Ali had stepped away from the limelight, despite traveling frequently for humanitarian work. When the Atlanta Games secretly asked him if he was going to light the Olympic flame, he initially said no, citing the weaknesses associated with the advancement of the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. But his friend, photographer and biographer Howard Bingham convinced him, saying, “The world says thank you for everything you have done in your lifetime. There will be a billion people watching you.” Ali’s surprise appearance remains one of the defining images of all the Olympic Games.

Ken Burns’ “Muhammad Ali” will debut September 19 on PBS.


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