Thanks to filmmaker Ken Burns, Muhammad Ali is back on our screens, the subject of a riveting four-part PBS documentary that explores the complexities, contradictions and courage of an extraordinary American life.
So many books and films have been done on the late heavyweight boxing champion/activist/humanitarian that you would think there would be no new stories to tell. But part of Burns’ genius is his ability to mine new material and provide historical and cultural context and perspective. In Ali, he once again prompts us to view a subject from angles we hadn’t considered before.
This new series (available to local viewers on WXXI) is by no means a hagiography; it takes an honest, full look at Ali, warts and all. Assisted on this massive undertaking by his daughter, Sarah, and son-in-law David McMahon, Burns doesn’t pull any punches. Controversies are fully examined. There are deep dives into Ali’s court fight after refusing to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War; his conversion and devotion to Islam; his sublime boxing career, which saw him win the heavyweight title an unprecedented three times; his courageous, decades-long response to Parkinson’s, and his evolution from being the most despised athlete in the United States to the most beloved.
“We now think of Muhammad Ali as this vulnerable guy lighting the (Olympic) torch in Atlanta and everybody around the globe loves him,” biographer David Remnick says during the film. “He’s a universal hero, almost in a religious way, like the Buddha. But when he was in the midst of his career — and not just the early days — he was incredibly divisive. People hated him — whether it was along racial lines, class lines, Vietnam lines, political lines, religious lines, where they just couldn’t stand him.”
Despite the unjust legal decision regarding his conscientious objector status which stripped of his heavyweight title and robbed him of his constitutional rights, Ali stood tall. Eventually, justice prevailed as the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favor.
“Ali’s principled opposition to the Vietnam War and deeply affecting message of racial pride were remarkable then and equally so now,” said McMahon, who grew up in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence. “His actions and words speak to his character and also to his influence as an athlete who used his celebrity to speak out about injustices that he could not tolerate.”
Ali’s contradictions are fully examined in the film. His kindness — especially here in Rochester — was legendary. As was his cruelty. His treatment of boxing rival Joe Frazier, was racist and deplorable, difficult to reconcile. Ali’s history of womanizing and participation in a blood sport went against his religious teachings. The third of his three brutal fights against Frazier — the “Thrilla in Manila” — is regarded as a classic, but also led to Ali’s decline into Parkinson’s disease.
His story, like many American stories, also is a tale of redemption. Ali eventually would apologize for his treatment of Frazier and women, and show true contrition, backing words with actions. He would evolve from preaching the separation of races to becoming a uniter of people, regardless of color, gender or religion.
“One of my father’s favorite sayings was ‘Rivers, lakes and streams all have different names, but they all contain water,’” says Hana Ali. “So do religions have different names, but they all contain truth. He always taught me that there’s only one true religion and that’s the religion of the heart . . . and as long as you do right and treat people right, I believe you will go to heaven, no matter the religion.”
As we learned from the documentary, Ali would come to regard Parkinson’s as a curse and a blessing. He believed his God was punishing him for his transgressions. Though the disease reduced Ali’s once bombastic “I am the greatest” voice to a whisper, it did not silence him, did not prevent him from continuing to be a powerful communicator and advocate fiercely for equal rights, peace and unity. He would spend the latter decades of his life atoning for his sins, and performing countless random acts of kindness. I was privileged to have witnessed his generosity of spirit several times — here and halfway around the globe.
I will never forget the day in late January 1999 when he saved the Rochester Press-Radio Club’s Day of Champions Children’s Charities Dinner. New York Yankees pitcher David Wells was supposed to be the headliner, but begged out at the last minute for mysterious personal reasons. With the dinner ready to thud against the canvas, longtime Ali friend and personal photographer Howard Bingham put in a call. Ali boarded Kodak’s private corporate jet and flew to Rochester from Indiana. His surprise appearance evoked chants of “Ali! Ali! Ali!” among the roughly 1,300 dinner-goers. The former champ donated two autographed boxing gloves that fetched $11,000.
Most headliners charge an arm and a leg to appear at such banquets, with fees in the high five figures. Not Ali. Not only did he come on extremely short notice, he came for free, meaning local charities benefitted more than if Wells had shown up.
I had witnessed similar kindness from Ali a few years earlier when he attended the Rochester Boxing Hall of Fame dinner to raise money for former Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo, who had lost his wife and three sons to drug overdoses and had fallen on hard emotional and economic times.
And Ali was just as gracious when he came to Rochester in 1994 for the annual Aquinas Institute Mission Bouts. Though his movements were affected by his condition, the boxing icon still managed to dazzle the kids with his fancy footwork, performing his famed “Ali Shuffle” in the locker room before the opening bell.
I was there, too, in Atlanta in 1996 when Ali pulled off the biggest magic trick of them all by lighting the Olympic cauldron. There had been heavy speculation that famous Georgians Jimmy Carter or Hank Aaron would ignite the big flame. But Olympic organizers did a masterful job keeping the identity of the cauldron lighter a secret. I can still feel that 80,000-seat stadium trembling with applause after Ali appeared on the giant screen.
My most coveted Ali moment occurred at the 2000 Olympics in Australia when the champ — at Bingham’s urging — invited me and two friends from Kodak to his suite overlooking the iconic Sydney Harbor Opera House. For nearly an hour, Ali entertained the handful of us with magic tricks, pulling a seemingly endless supply of handkerchiefs from his sleeves and quarters from behind our unsuspecting ears. He recited some of his famous boxing poems and discussed the differences and similarities between Christianity and Islam.
Memories of those encounters rushed back as I watched Burns’ latest film. The documentary reminded me of the complexities, contradictions and courage that made Ali such a seminal figure. His influence went well beyond the ring and continues to be felt five years after his death.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.