Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Muhammad Ali: Reviewing the Life of an Extraordinary American

The former heavyweight boxing champion and philanthropist floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee, danced at the edge of death and spoke truth to power. A new Ken and Sarah Burns documentary compels us to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror of the "great one."

Ali meets fans in Detroit.jpeg
Sidewalk Sparring. Muhammad Ali enjoying a spontaneous encounter with his fans in Detroit, Mich., in the late 1970s. (Burns/PBS/Michael Gaffney)
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.


A lexicographer once said, “a dictionary is the history of a people from a certain point of view.” Ken and Sarah Burns’ latest documentary film, Muhammad Ali: Bigger than Boxing, Larger than Life, is the history of the 1960s and 70s in America through the life and career of one of the most colorful, entertaining, talented, provocative and compelling individuals. At the height of his fame, Muhammad Ali was the most famous man on earth. He embodied the exuberant madness of the era: the shouting, the ubiquity of protest, the triumph of television and pay-per-view, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, Black pride, the shattering of the old Ozzie and Harriet paradigm, and, inevitably, Vietnam. You cannot divorce Ali’s extraordinary career from the brutal sport of boxing, but somehow in the end it is not really about boxing. The cast is vast: Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Elvis, the Beatles, Richard Daley, Dick Nixon, Norman Mailer. As the filmmakers remind us from the start, it’s “bigger than boxing.”

Ali Prevailed as a Conscientious Objector


Ali’s life represents one of the greatest comeback stories in American history. Stripped of his heavyweight title because he refused to be inducted into the U.S. military, Ali was banned from the ring for three years, from June 20, 1967, until Oct. 26, 1970. Ali was just 25 years old when he was exiled from his life’s work. Three years in the life of anyone is a long time. Three years in the life of an elite athlete at the height of his powers is eternity. Ali eventually won his battle with the United States government. On June 28, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction for evading the draft. Although he was clearly a little diminished in skill, Ali returned to the ring, regained his title on Oct. 30, 1974 (against George Foreman in Zaire), and went on to earn millions in what were then the highest-paid boxing matches in history. He lost his title to Leon Spinks in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 1978, but regained it – for a third time! – six months later, on Sept. 15, 1978. Ali finally retired, once and for all, on June 26, 1979. He was just 37 years old. By then his famously pretty face bore the evidence of the tens of thousands of punches he had taken (one statistician says 200,000), and his once hyperactive brain was slowly shutting down as inexorably as the Hal-9000 computer in Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Definition of an American Tragedy


It’s a kind of American tragedy. It’s not that Ali had no second act. His life consisted of many acts, but he could never fully escape from the boxing ring until it was too late, and though he lived through his 74th birthday (born Jan. 17, 1942, died June 3, 2016), for much of the second half of his life the man who would never shut up could barely speak; the boxer who could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” shuffled his way across flat surfaces, moved his body as if he were walking on the bottom of a swimming pool, and his arms trembled. Yes, he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, but we all know that the main issue was chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The questions put to him by fawning talk show hosts like Dick Cavett found it hard to reach into the interior universe where what was left of Ali’s soul resided. The best of the commentators in the Burns film, journalist Dave Kindred, who witnessed some of the greatest and some of the most barbaric fights, said, near the end of the documentary, that in the third and final Frazier fight in Manila, “they turned each other into monsters. That’s boxing at its cruelest. But that’s what the game is. It’s a naked assault on a brain.”

Ali Was Both Righteous and Right


If ever the phrase “speak truth to power” found its pure expression, it was when Ali said, “No Viet Cong never called me n…r,” Ali packed more meaning, more punch, into those seven words than if he had written a doctoral thesis opposing the war. Ali’s logic was as impeccable as it was economical. Why should an African American cross the globe to fight a colonial war in southeast Asia, against a people who had never attacked America, when law-abiding Black Americans here at home were being attacked by police dogs during peaceful protests, blasted with water cannons, and beaten with night sticks? Why should an African American fight a white man’s war in a faraway place when the struggle for basic rights and dignities in the United States was radically unfinished? What had the white government of the United States done to deserve that allegiance from a minority population that was still living under apartheid? Ali made it clear that he had no quarrel with the people of Vietnam. His quarrel was with the white establishment of his own country. In retrospect, almost every American (of any color or ethnicity) acknowledges the wisdom of his position. He was righteous, but he was also right.


His enemies are here, not there: Ali is confronted by a group of white men over his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. military.

One of the things I most admire about Ken Burns is his intellectual integrity. Twice the documentary reminds us that Ali came to regret having said what he said about Vietnam. Ali later said he was just telling the truth as he knew it in 1967, but he had not meant to upset the American people so deeply. It would have been easy enough for the Burns team to suppress those later reflections and lock Ali into his fullest posture of heroic defiance, but their goal was clearly not to present Ali as an American icon but as a complicated, sometimes contradictory, often fragile and vulnerable human being. They report his candid remarks at the end of the most violent fights – “I’m tired,” and “Father Time is catching up.” They do not play down Ali’s capacity for cruelty, some of which came from his fists and at least as much came out of his mouth, as he ruthlessly taunted the serious Black opponents who respected him. He called Joe Frazier “Uncle Tom” and called George Foreman a “gorilla.” Some of his remarks were clearly racist. Nor do Burns and his remarkable daughter Sarah (who made the outstanding documentary The Central Park Five) ignore Ali’s incessant womanizing. Just hours before he lost to Joe Frazier in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century” in 1971, Ali’s wife Khalilah found him in bed with a prostitute.


The Fight of the Century: Highlight reel from Ali's fight with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.

Tell Me My Name


Although Malcolm Little had previously renamed himself Malcolm X (1952), most Americans, at least those in the heartland, knew little or nothing about the Nation of Islam when, just a week after he defeated Sonny Liston (on Feb. 25, 1964), Cassius Clay announced that he would hereafter be known as Muhammad Ali, that he was a Black Muslim, and that his spiritual leader was the Rev. Elijah Muhammad. Most of the white world reacted with outrage. Sportscasters, fight promoters, news anchors, congressmen, even Howard Cosell (who soon came around) told Ali to his face that they would never call him anything but Cassius Marcellus Clay. Ali won that fight, too. Thanks to Ali’s greatness and celebrity, by the time Lew Alcindor announced that he would hereafter be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the national controversy was comparatively muted.

muhammad-ali-and-a boy
A playful Muhammad Ali takes a hit from a young sparring partner. (Shutterstock/Rex)
Muhammad Ali: Bigger than Boxing, Larger than Life, now airing and streaming on PBS, is wonderfully narrated by the award-winning actor Keith David. It’s good to have a break from Burns’ usual narrator Peter Coyote, and important, I believe, that an African American tell the story. The film is also remarkably free from some of the most notable Ken Burns’ effects — including the endless camera crawl up the trajectory of a photograph — effects that are by now so familiar to Burns fans that they are no longer quite so magical as they were in his 1990 classic The Civil War. The only thing I found myself missing in this film was replay. If you watch any major sporting event today you can expect to see every important play, perhaps every single play, replayed, often from several angles, using stop-action, slow-motion and graphic enhancements. The Burns footage just keeps moving forward. I would have liked to see the replay of some of the most important moments of these fights: Frazier knocking Ali down in the 15th round of their first fight (March 8, 1971), Ali knocking George Foreman out in Zaire (Oct. 30, 1974), Ken Norton’s flurry of punches that broke Ali’s jaw in their March 31, 1973, fight.

We Were All Complicit


An aging Ali boxes the camera.jpg
An aging Ali boxes the camera.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Ali deteriorate. The encapsulation of 30 years of boxing (61 fights, 56 wins, five losses) into a few intense hours of public television permits us - forces us - to watch as the most brutal of all sports destroy a man. The first two episodes of the documentary, Round One: The Greatest (1942-1964) and Round Two: What’s My Name (1964-1970), explore and showcase Ali’s almost unbearable beauty – the unmarked face, the dazzling smile, perfect leanness and perfect confidence, and the quickness of his body, leaning back at impossible angles to avoid vicious punches, skipping like a dervish through the ring with dance moves that would have made Michael Jackson envious. We watched him back then on grainy black and white television sets not much larger than a modern computer screen. Imagine if we could have seen in home theaters at high resolution?

But after the 1971 Frazier fight and the 1974 title bout with George Foreman, Ali mostly ceased to be the dancing and gesticulating phenomenon of his earlier years and began to stand still and slug it out with his opponents, some of whom probably should have been declared the winners of the fights. The mauling he took from Larry Holmes on Dec. 2, 1980, is simply too hard to watch. Dave Kindred provides pitch-perfect commentary. After Ali lost the first three or four lackluster rounds, Kindred said, we thought “any minute now he is going to be Muhammad Ali again.” Everyone expected Ali to turn on the genius one more time. He did not. “Then it was really sad. It was like watching a train wreck, like watching a friend get run over by a truck. You start thinking, I don’t want to watch this. I don’t want to see this anymore. I’ve seen all the magic [in previous fights]. The magic is gone.” Afterward, Ali’s former doctor said, “In two or three years we will see what the Holmes fight did to his kidneys and brain.”

The climax of the fourth installment of the film, Round Four: The Spell Remains (1974-2016), is the third and final fight with Joe Frazier. It was billed as the Thrilla in Manila, but it might better have been rhymed as the Appalling Mauling. Two of the greatest boxers of the 20th century – of all time – squared off for 14 rounds before Frazier’s corner man finally threw in the towel. These two great fighters, slowed by age and the sheer number of savage punches they had taken in decades of fighting, beat each other nearly to death in the Philippines.

Before the fight, Frazier said, "Once I've stopped your organs — when those kidneys and liver stop functioning, he can't move so fast ... The organs in his body have to be functioning. If you slow them down, he cannot do what he wants to do.” Fight historians have argued that it is not clear that either man would have survived a 15th round. Late in the fight, Ali told his corner crew, “it’s the closest thing to dying that I know of.” According to some, he asked Angelo Dundee to cut the laces on his gloves. Seconds after he was declared the winner, Ali collapsed in the ring. “We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men,” he later mumbled.

A Fine Line Between Hate, Love and Regret


The Ali funeral procession in 2016.png
More than 10,000 people turned out to observe funeral processional for Muhammad Ali in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., on June 10, 2016.
As one of the best commentators in the film, David Remnick of the New Yorker, says, the American people eventually forgave Ali for his outspokenness about the war, because they realized he had been right. When Ali – quavering and looking like he might topple at any moment – held the Olympic torch for the Atlanta summer games in 1996 (he was 54 years old), and nearly everyone at the opening ceremony either cheered or cried, “it just struck me so amazingly,” Remnick said. “You cast not so many years before and some huge amount of the country thought this guy was the antichrist or they chose to hate him. ... It’s entirely possible that human beings are capable of learning something.”

But Dave Kindred offers an even greater insight. We were all complicit. “He was defenseless now. He cannot make us mad anymore. The game we asked him to play to entertain us has left him looking like this. Now we feel some sympathy if not guilt. We see him shaking, trembling up there. The most beautiful athlete in motion you’ve ever seen and now he cannot hold the torch. ... We want to ask forgiveness.”

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, Listening to America. Clay’s new book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.

Clay welcomes – actively solicits even - your comments and critiques of his essays, interviews and reviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
The 2021 Ideas Challenge recognizes innovative public policy that positively impacts local communities and the NewDEAL leaders who championed them.
Sponsored
Drug coverage affordability really does exist in the individual Medicare marketplace!
Sponsored
Understand the differences between group Medicare and individual Medicare plans and which plans are best for retirees.
Sponsored
For a while, concerns about credit card fees and legacy processing infrastructure might have slowed government’s embrace of digital payment options.
Sponsored
How expanded financial assistance, a streamlined application process and creative legislation can help Black and brown-owned businesses revive communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.