Muhammad Ali: Can the Greatest of All Time Speak to Our Time?


West Palm Beach, FL. Ken Burns has become famous for telling American stories. And despite its declining popularity, few sports portray the American spirit as vividly as does boxing. It is a sport in which the individual must rely on himself and his own strength to triumph over an adversary in the most direct form of opposition imaginable. When not fixed, fights are the ultimate meritocracy, and boxing has been a path to economic stability and fame for generations of fighters from poor backgrounds. It is a sport filled with braggadocio in which the beauty of the human form is on full display, even as that body is being threatened and destroyed. Its champions carry their titles in their bodies and, unlike other sports, a title can be won or lost in any match. In 2004, Ken Burns turned to boxing for a dynamic individual and the sport’s ability to speak to the American story when he narrated the life of Jack Johnson in Unforgivable Blackness. In 2021, Burns retells the story of Muhammad Ali in a four-part series now on PBS.

It is no wonder that Ken Burns would want to make a documentary about Muhammad Ali. Considered by many to be the greatest athlete of the twentieth century, Ali was “the very spirit of the twentieth century,” in the words of Norman Mailer. Less hardscrabble than many of boxing’s heroes, Ali was beautiful and witty; he had a quickness of speech and step that amazed, and he was magical on film. Even celebrations of him could be magical. Outside the ring he was just as interesting as he took political stands, explored his religion, and became a symbol for others. He was loved and he was hated; he was an Olympian who represented his country, and he was a conscientious objector who would not fight for that country; he was remarkably cruel and he was remarkably kind. The magnetism of Ali is undeniable.

Yet it is, in some ways, surprising that Ken Burns should make a film about Muhammad Ali. Burns is often at his best with subjects less familiar to the public or more remote from our own time. Unforgivable Blackness reintroduced Jack Johnson to an American audience that had largely forgotten the first black heavyweight champion. But the legend of Muhammad Ali is alive and well. There are already so many documentaries about him, some very good, such as When We Were Kings. And the famous “Ken Burns effect,” which helps make a static photograph a compelling visual image on film, is most powerful in the service of subjects for which we have little footage. But there is no shortage of film on Ali. The choice to make a documentary about Muhammad Ali may indicate an inability to resist one man’s personal magnetism, but it seems more likely that Ken Burns made this film based on his belief in the ability of Ali’s life to speak to our times.

This series looks at Ali’s fights but suggests his significance as a fighter was just as much about who he was as a man. The young Cassius Clay was a fun and charming Olympian, whose clean-living and athletic potential inspired a group of businessmen from his hometown of Louisville to sponsor and safeguard his career. But not long after he became heavyweight champion at twenty-two, Muhammad Ali became a divisive and hated figure. On the heels of his victory, he expressed his conviction that “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be and think what I want to think.” Soon his outspoken comments, his seemingly effortless victories, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and his brash personality made him a villain. And Ali embraced the role, even modeling some of his fighting persona on the wrestler Gorgeous George.

Ali’s career was, in many ways, filled with sound and fury. He was unapologetic about himself and his ideas, in the vein of Jack Johnson. He was loyal to the controversial Nation of Islam and outspoken about racial issues. His quickness in the ring allowed him to ignore certain aspects of technique. And his rise to greatness included rivalry with and opposition to others. In boxing you must physically harm your opponent, but Ali also showed himself to be sometimes exceptionally cruel outside the ring. His comments about Joe Frazier and George Foreman were heartless and even, at times, more or less racist. Like many figures who captivate the public eye in 2021, Ali could be a divisive braggart and a bully.

Yet Ali is considered by many as “the greatest” because he had to triumph over obstacles. He was humbled and made human. Ali was sidelined for a significant amount of time in his career and had to regain his title an unprecedented three times. Two of those times he had lost his title for political reasons, for joining the Nation of Islam and for refusing to be drafted into the Army. After the second, long absence, the Ali whose conscientious objector case went to the Supreme Court was a slower and tougher boxer, and his later fights, in the 1970s and 1980s, took a visible toll. After the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali said of himself and Joe Frazier that “we went to Manila as champions. We came back as old men.” Like many boxers, he delayed retirement too long. His career ended more humbly than it began.

In the documentary, writer Howard Bryant describes Ali’s return to boxing after his ban as a “quest to be made whole.” Ali was a public figure who loved the limelight, who loved people, and who made some very public mistakes. He was cruel to his opponents, he was unfaithful to his wives, he was disloyal to his friend, Malcolm X. But Ali was also an incredibly generous person, a principled citizen, and a hero to millions around the world. If in his youth, his virtues and vices battled against each other, as he aged, his virtues overtook the vices. He had both comeuppances and come backs. He was able to live and learn.

Ali was a man who became famous through boxing, a sport which requires a man to physically batter his opponents. Our most famous photos of Ali are of him standing over men he has knocked to the ground. And he was just as verbally dominant and merciless. The antihero Ali is one who bears some resemblance to our own divided time. Yet Ali matured. He took political stands at great personal sacrifice, he acknowledged his errors, and he became known for his generosity of spirit and love of humanity. One of his favorite sayings was “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

The questions posed by the Ken Burns documentary are not about Muhammad Ali, because we already know him. It seems very likely that Burns chose Ali, despite so much existing chronicling of his career, because he represents the possibility of change. The questions are about us. Ali flew so close to the sun, but he was still able to grow as a human being. He became kinder and gentler as time went by. He used his gifts for good. Yet the shift in Ali was mirrored by a shift in society and the possibility of change in the public. The man who was hated and shown on the cover of Esquire in the pose of St. Sebastian became beloved and respected by a very broad spectrum of people. He was a villain in many minds, but he became a hero in many hearts. His acceptance symbolized growth on the part of the wider public. By holding up the life of Muhammad Ali, Ken Burns seems to be asking us pressing questions: can we maintain our principles and move from outspoken and oppositional to loving and virtuous? Will we use our beauty and gifts not to belittle others but to better them? Those are questions worth our attention and action.

Image Credit: Frictional, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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