|A young Cassius Clay with trainer Joe E. Martin|
|Cassius Clay winning an Olympic Gold Medal|
|Ali with wife Khalilah, three children, and Malcolm X|
|Ali listening to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad|
|Malcolm X with Ali|
|Malcolm X delivering a speech in Harlem|
|Ali with Drew Bundini Brown|
|Ali refusing his induction into the draft|
|Ali sided by Bill Russell (left to right), Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|Ali with Drew Bundini Brown|
|Ali enduring the slings and arrows of public criticism|
|Ali with Joe Frazier|
|Ali with Leon Spinx|
|Ali and Spinx press conference|
|Ali and George Foreman, Rumble in the Jungle|
|Ali and George Frazier, Thrilla in Manila|
|Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams is the little girl in the center|
|4th wife Lonnie Ali|
|Director Ken Burns|
|Ken Burns (left), daughter Sarah, and her husband David McMahon|
|Rasheda Ali with Sarah Burns at Telluride Film Festival, 2021|
MUHAMMAD ALI – made for TV A- USA (452 mi) 2021 a series in 4-parts d: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon
Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me a nigger…I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400-years. I could be there 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. My enemy is the white people, not Vietcong or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs—and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home? —Muhammad Ali to a crowd of college students during his exile from boxing, "The trials of a Chicago director making Muhammad Ali doc"
Following the success of earlier films, Jackie Robinson (2016) and The Central Park Five (2012), Burns tackles a larger than life figure in Muhammad Ali, a global icon who captivated worldwide audiences, yet came from humble beginnings, given a more than 7-hour examination that allows the filmmaker to explore his legacy, from his birth and boyhood in Jim Crow segregated Louisville, Kentucky to his death in 2016, which followed years of dealing with the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Other films have covered specific aspects of Ali’s life, but this may be the most comprehensive overall view on record, co-written and co-directed by the director’s daughter, Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. One of the most consequential men of the 20th century, Ali is a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated billions of fans with his combination of speed, agility, and power in the ring, and his charm, wit, and outspokenness outside of it. At the height of his fame, Ali challenged America’s racial prejudices, religious biases, and notions about what roles celebrities and athletes play in our society, and inspired people all over the world with his message of pride and self-affirmation. Revered globally when he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, viewed as an international ambassador of peace, visibly shaking and unable to speak from Parkinson’s, yet still an imposing figure of a man. Though early on he was such a divisive figure shortly after winning the heavyweight boxing crown when he converted to a Muslim with the Nation of Islam, a black separatist group, changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, something that quite literally shocked white America, which really turned against him with a vengeance when he was the first mega-celebrity to refuse the draft, claiming to be a conscientious objector, citing religious reasons, and refused military service during the Vietnam War. Viewed differently by different communities, as blacks never abandoned him, believing he got a raw deal, Ali was charged with draft evasion and potentially subject to five years in prison, initially banned from fighting in any American venues, forcing him to fight overseas, then stripping him of his title during the prime of his career, his travails well documented in Bill Siegel’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), taking four years for his legal case to finally work its way through the system, eventually prevailing by a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction on a technicality, opening the door for a miraculous career recovery, his public image resurrected when the tide turned against such an unpopular war, with Ali now revered for standing on his principles. Losing much of the hand and foot speed that he was renowned for, yet he miraculously regained the heavyweight title, involved in several of the most historic boxing matches in history, celebrated internationally for his comeback heroicism, becoming the most recognizable figure on the planet. He may have lingered in the ring too long and taken too much punishment, as all the brash talk that defined the early stages of his career was suddenly silenced when his body was ravaged with Parkinson’s Disease, losing the ability to speak, yet he retained a legendary and noble status until his death at the age of 74. With recollections and comments from two of his daughters, Hana and Rasheda, their childhood was filled with reverberating moments of public adulation, creating indelible memories of a much beloved figure, as the public clamored to get close to their father. These experiences inevitably made them feel important, realizing the awesome public reach of their father, a figure known throughout the world. The opening shot reveals a playful moment when he’s teasing one of the girls, promising not to eat their cereal, then creating diversions so he can sneak a bite, a refreshingly candid moment that captures a rare intimacy.
Drawing from an extraordinary trove of archival footage and photographs, contemporary music, and the insights and memories of eyewitnesses, including family and friends, journalists, boxers, and historians, among others, Burns has created a sweeping portrait of an American icon. The film details the story of the athlete who competed in some of the most dramatic and widely viewed sporting events ever while also capturing his principled resistance to the Vietnam War, his steadfast commitment to his Muslim faith, and his complex relationships with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, who profoundly shaped his life and worldview. Initially inspired by a recording entitled The White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell, sung by a Minister X, who turned out to be Louis Farrakhan, "A White Man's Heaven Is A Black Man's Hell." - YouTube (5:39), Ali played it over and over again before converting to Islam. Ali’s story is full of contradictions, displaying his competitive reputation and ruthless athleticism in the ring, but he went on to become a symbol for peace and pacifism. Though committed to a faith that expected obedience and dignified conduct, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wives, at times publicly flaunting his affairs. Ali was a clever showman with an unparalleled genius for promotion and turn of phrase, who occasionally allowed his partners and friends to take advantage of him. He endlessly trumpeted his own greatness as a boxer, but anonymously donated to save a Jewish old age home, made surprise visits to pediatric hospitals, and signed autographs for every last fan. Born Cassius Clay, named after a Kentucky abolitionist, his parents lived in a respectable black middle class neighborhood, where his father was a sign painter, but considered himself an artist, however no other job opportunities were available for a black man, causing friction and lifelong resentment, regretting a life that never happened, often bringing that frustration home, having had a few drinks, openly beating his mother on occasion, who was a domestic worker cleaning white people’s homes, friendly and gregarious, getting along with everyone, where the whole neighborhood often turned to her for help with their own problems, where it’s fun to hear Ali’s daughters speak about how he resembles his own parents, friendly and outgoing, like his mother, yet aware of the racial strife surrounding them, from his father. Ali was not a good student in school, as he had dyslexia, often resorting to being the class clown just to draw attention, perhaps covering up for his own academic deficiencies, but his clamor for attention started at an early age. Very close to his younger brother Rudy (renamed Rahman Ali), at 12, Ali drove his brother on his bike riding on the handlebars, driving downtown one afternoon, but they were met with a downpour, seeking cover to get out of the rain, only to discover afterwards that someone stole his bike. Angered by the incident, he explained what happened to Louisville police officer Joe E. Martin, indicating he would “whup” the thief, so Martin, who was a boxing instructor asked if he knew how to fight, directing him to the Columbia Gym, which was racially integrated, a rarity at the time and something the young Ali had never seen, eventually taking him up on his offer, with Martin becoming his boxing coach for the next six years, training him for six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Glove titles, and a light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Ali’s amateur record was 100 wins with five losses, characterized by blazing speed and expert conditioning, demonstrating unusual balance and dexterity on his feet. His training regimen was legendary, often chasing the school bus on the route to school, running both forwards and backwards while shadow boxing, usually running five miles each morning. These boxing matches caused Ali to miss plenty of classes in school, but his principal certified his graduation. Among his strongest childhood memories was being denied a drink of water at a downtown store, due to his color, which left him angered by the sheer stupidity, and he was profoundly affected, as were all blacks at the time, by the monstrous violence used in disfiguring the face of a young 14-year old Emmett Till, who was the same age as Ali, lynched in Mississippi in 1955, yet his mother insisted that his funeral be an open casket, so the entire world could see the extreme degree of race hatred involved.
Narrated by the voice of actor Keith David, a mainstay on Burns’ documentaries, the early segments are an interesting portrait of Louisville, particularly the West End, which was a thriving community with its own banks and black-owned businesses, yet it’s interesting to see in the midst of a Jim Crow segregated South such a diverse collection of white business executives that helped get Muhammad Ali started, 11 men forming a business alliance known as The Louisville Sponsoring Group, The Eleven Men Behind Cassius Clay - Sports Illustrated Vault, which formed not only to manage his career, but to protect the young Olympic champion boxer from the crime syndicate which was flourishing at the time in the sport of boxing, where Ali’s rise to prominence really helped clean up the sport, as Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion, was reportedly owned by the mob, which was controlling the fight game. Ali had a clean cut image, accessible and extremely personable, where his likeability factor was striking, something they did not want to see corrupted by a sordid underworld, so they guided and protected his financial interests when he turned professional. In this regard Ali really caught a break, as it is highly unusual for a managing team to exhibit so much concern in their fighter’s character, where keeping it unblemished was always a primary goal. Ali, on the other hand, had his own ideas, hiring Angelo Dundee to be his trainer, idolizing the supreme confidence and flamboyant extravagance in the public persona of boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson, while also becoming fascinated by the promotional antics of professional wrestler Gorgeous George, whose charisma and bombastic excess sold tickets, meeting him at a radio station promotional event at the age of 19, watching him conduct an interview, with Ali copying many of his antics, not only emulating having such a pretty face, but describing himself as the greatest of all time, which Ali endlessly spouted when promoting his fights, growing deliriously happy with himself while taunting his opponents. Like the wrestler, Ali was often met by a hail of boos, but that was OK, so long as they bought a ticket. These tactics really aggravated an old-school fighter like Sonny Liston, who intended to send this young upstart a message, as Ali’s braggadocio style lured the champion into taking the match, believing he could make light work out of him, having walked over his other opponents, known as a devastating puncher who was considered unbeatable, much like George Foreman when Ali fought him later in his career. At the press conference prior to the fight, Ali taunted the champion with the help of his cornerman Drew Bundini Brown who composed one of his epic poems, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, rumble, young man, rumble.” Liston was in for a surprise, however, as Ali danced circles around him, hitting him at will, opening a cut over his left eye, while Liston’s punches rarely hit their intended target, frustrating him to no end. But at the end of the 4th Round, Ali returned to the corner complaining his eyes burned and he couldn’t see, wanting to stop the fight, but Dundee did his best to rinse out his eyes and send him back out there in the 5th, where Ali, still blinded, evaded Liston as much as possible, but got tagged a few times, increasing Liston’s confidence, but he survived. The condition cleared up by the 6th, which Ali clearly dominated, pouring it on with combinations from every direction, becoming a showman in the ring, hitting the champion at will, with Liston unable to continue, failing to answer the bell in the 7th, with Ali declared the winner by TKO. Liston complained about his shoulder, apparently thrown out of its socket (hitting air), but he simply had no answer for the much quicker Ali. Afterwards, the eye irritation was presumed to be caused by Liston’s corner putting ointment to treat his cuts on his gloves, then smearing it in Ali’s eyes, an underhanded tactic born out of clear desperation.
Some of the most astute boxing commentary comes from Michael Bentt, a former heavyweight fighter, who marvels at what Ali was able to do in the ring prior to the draft melee, compiling a record of 29-0, displaying astonishing speed and power, a true artist in the ring who was able to evade punches while employing a devastatingly accurate jab, exhibiting qualities no one has ever seen either before or since, placing him in a category of his own. But his career came to a thudding halt once he refused army induction, labeled anti-American, a terrorist, and a traitor to his nation, an act that was largely misunderstood at the time when nearly all the sports writers and columnists were white, interjecting their own bias, but he was following a pattern set by his spiritual leader, the Honorable Elijah Mohammad, the Nation of Islam leader who served four years in jail during World War II for refusing his induction, both following their religious beliefs that only Allah could order someone into fighting a war, no one else. Religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy, yet it appeared he was being singled out for his controversial views, made to serve as an example. With his livelihood stripped away, Ali took up residence on Chicago’s South Side where he was forced to live a much more conventional life, returning back to his humble roots, where he got married, started a family, and eventually staged a comeback, with his religion playing a more dominant aspect of his life. While Malcolm X was initially his mentor, in a controversial move Malcolm split from the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, hearing rumors that he was concealing extramarital affairs with young Nation of Islam secretaries, while also growing disillusioned with their practice of racial separation, becoming convinced after a pilgrimage to Mecca that Islam consisted of people of all races, remaining an irritant in the eyes of Elijah Muhammad, who thought he might have known too much, having too much influence, hoping to silence him, yet Malcolm’s pursuit of racial justice was tantamount. Ali was caught in between allegiances, eventually siding with the supreme leader Elijah Muhammad, which meant betraying Malcolm, a choice he later regretted (he was only 21 at the time), Blood Brothers: The Tragedy of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, as it was the Nation of Islam that later assassinated Malcolm X, shooting him down in broad daylight, shot 21-times by several followers of Elijah Muhammad, a horribly tragic event that still has ominous ramifications today, with the truth hidden under an ambiguous cloud of lies and deceit. While not in the film, according to Karl Evanzz in his 1992 book The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X, Ali himself had a meeting with Talmadge Hayer, one of the men convicted of killing Malcolm X, the night before the assassination. One thing this film does really well is place Ali’s life in the perspective of the times, friends with both assassinated victims Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, all aligning together against the Vietnam War, joined by a 60’s counterculture movement whose political engagement actually turned the tide on the war. For lack of any other income, Ali went on the college lecture circuit, interacting with students, becoming more outspoken on racism, offering a new form of black masculinity, where Ali’s once controversial views became part of the mainstream, revered and respected for standing up for his principles. Among the excellent selections of topical experts is Muslim journalist Salim Muwakkil, a veteran of the Air Force, yet also a former member of the Black Panther Party as well as the Nation of Islam, a managing editor of their official publication Muhammad Speaks before moving to The Chicago Tribune, still writing op-ed columns, having grown up in New York City and seen Malcolm X regularly speak on the corner of Harlem Square and 125th Street, he offers some of the most coherently understandable commentary on the Nation of Islam to ever appear onscreen, providing needed context for Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X and his stance against the war, claiming his views coincided with many young black men, including black soldiers who viewed themselves as frontline cannon fodder, routinely sent to the front lines, coinciding with Project 100,000 in 1965, which lowered the educational standards of the draft, so within two years a disproportionate 40% of the 246,000 draftees were black, mostly poor inner city kids who were more likely to be assigned to combat units. Ali’s comments are buffered by Washington University history professor Gerald Early, basketball legend and fellow Muslim Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both of whom supported Ali’s stance, with Early claiming it was the defining moment in Ali’s life, particularly when he explained he was willing to die for a cause, with law professor and co-founder of the Weather Underground Bernardine Dohrn making a rare screen appearance, all adding to a tightly woven narrative with race and social injustice implications, giving even greater context not only to Ali but also Malcolm X, where the soundtrack is amazing, filled with jazz greats, underscoring the radical ideas of the times being disseminated.
Ali developed a lifelong friendship with promoter Bob Arum, while Herbert Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad, served as his chief advisor and business manager, taking over after the Louisville Group, a partnership that continued for the length of his career, taking 1/3 of the fighter’s earnings along with a share of the extra income generated through the novel use of closed-circuit television, an early form of pay-for-view in sporting events, packing in more customers than would fit in an arena, offering a close-hand view of the best seats in the house. In the lead-up to his draft day decision, Ali fought 8 fights in less than a year, an astonishing feat, yet he was attempting to stockpile income to get him through the tough times that lay ahead, dispatching with Sonny Liston a second time, dropping him in the first round with what has been described as a phantom punch, leading many to believe the fight was fixed, with Liston on the take. Then he went through a Who’s Who of heavyweights, including former champion Floyd Patterson, brutally battering him in an intentionally prolonged ring performance for refusing to call him by his changed name, calling him an Uncle Tom, criticized by the press afterwards for toying with him, using the same strategy against Ernie Terrell, who had known Ali for years as Cassius Clay when boxing in the amateurs, with Ali taking offense, vowing to punish him for his insolence. Ali charged the prefight atmosphere with ill-will by calling him an Uncle Tom, even slapping him in the face, then peppered him in the ring with a relentless assault of punches followed by taunts of “What’s my name?” It was not enough to defeat the man, he had to be thoroughly belittled and humiliated. Burns adds choreographic pyrotechnics to the screen by musically scoring the fight footage to the electric guitar wizardry of Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix - Machine Gun Live (Short Clip) - YouTube (3:57), beautifully integrating the artistry of the times. His command in the ring, however, much like his prevailing views on social justice, was simply unheard of and way ahead of his times, vastly underappreciated, as sports writers were so filled with invective and vitriol that they missed what was happening in the ring, as Ali’s unorthodox style allowed him to evade getting hit, making sure he was the only one scoring points. But what he dared to do in the ring, taking such extreme chances, was quite literally breathtaking, like a mercurial dancer light on his feet in a gladiator sport, always moving effortlessly out of the way while inflicting his own hard punches, something he was never able to duplicate after the extended layoff of three and a half years while allowing the court case to play out. This is the Ali that was a mesmerizing force to reckon with, at the extreme height of his powers, but sadly neglected. After winning the heavyweight championship, Ali continued to defy tradition, instead of visiting London or Paris or Rome afterwards, the cradle of European civilization, Ali would visit Islamist nations in the Middle East and Africa where he was embraced as a hero. This connection to an enthralled sea of humanity in third world countries was something that had never been done before, yet like everything else, Ali made it look so easy, expanding his realm of popularity. According to his wife, Ali was an incredibly generous man, where there wasn’t a mean bone in his body, that he would just give his money away to anyone he met who needed it, driven by an inner need to help people, convinced this was the best way to live his life. Certainly part of the film’s richness is the wide array of spokespersons offered, including Ali’s biographer Jonathan Eig, who is also a consulting producer, an assortment of sportswriters, Jerry Izenberg, Dave Kindred, and Robert Lipsyte, a professor of media studies, Todd Boyd, a best-selling novelist, Walter Mosley, a Nobel Prize-winning author, Wole Soyinka, two poets, Quincy Troupe and Nikki Giovanni, a fellow heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, who was also a former Ali sparring partner, an editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, who is also an Ali biographer, the enigmatic Don King, who promoted several of Ali’s most famous fights, and we also hear from two of his four wives, Belinda Ali and Veronica Porché, but none are better than former boxer Michael Bentt, who in the biopic ALI (2001) played Sonny Liston! The combination of all these collective viewpoints offer a fairly accurate portrait of the man, who was above all things human, hardly perfect, sexually adventurous, a known womanizer, even the night before fights, with a tendency to degrade his opponents using some of the most venal racial slurs that are right out of the white supremacist handbook, yet he got away with it, largely due to that magnetic quality in his personality that simply loved being around people, routinely seen holding court with reporters during his fight preparations, using humor to alleviate much of the built-up pressure.
The film exhibits a rare poignancy in understanding the turbulence of the times, something few films do, yet does an excellent job of blending the Ali narrative with the nation’s social unrest, the birth of the Civil Rights movement, the political assassinations, the Watts Riots, the Long Hot Summer of 1967, with Protests of 1968 that broke out worldwide, the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, the Olympic protests, and continuing pleas for social and racial justice that went unanswered, and unlike any of his other documentaries, Burns actually considers cinematic aesthetics in how the material is presented, while the editing is extraordinary, unlike the more than 18-hour BASEBALL (1994) and the even longer JAZZ (2001) where there simply wasn’t any. When Ali was finally allowed to fight again, post-exile, clearly he was not the same fighter, finding it harder to train and get into shape, so he was heavier and much slower, standing flat-footed in the ring, showing no movement, which allowed him to get hit a lot more and take extended punishment, something that never happened earlier in his career. All of which means he had to find different ways to win, and while he stunningly suffered a few losses, he amazed us all with some of the most historic wins in big, dramatic fights. Boxing fans will revel in all the extended footage of Ali’s fights, supported by astute analysis from multiple sources, but the beauty of the film is placing his life in context with the era’s discord. His first setback was a 1971 fight with Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who became a lifelong nemesis, with Ali giving him the similar derogatory Uncle Tom treatment, something Frazier didn’t appreciate, as unlike Ali, he had no early backers protecting him, but had to fight his way up through the streets, earning every victory with a relentlessly pummeling style. With two undefeated boxers, both Olympic champions, the fight is widely regarded as the biggest boxing match in history and arguably the singlemost anticipated and publicized sporting event ever, known as The Fight of the Century, staged at Madison Square Garden, with all the celebrity royalty in the house, both fighters guaranteed $2.5 million. While he was shorter, easier for Ali to reach, Frazier was doggedly persistent with shots to the body, inflicting more damage than Ali had ever suffered in his entire career, knocking him to the canvas in the final round, earning a unanimous victory, both fighters spent afterwards, with Frazier so exhausted he spent ten days in a hospital. Ali’s loss seemed to silence his critics, yet it was a momentous event, described by Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson as “a proper end to the 60’s,” yet Ali was magnanimous in defeat, acknowledging people were suffering far worse fates around the globe, that he simply lost a boxing match, which seemed to draw more people to his side, as he handled a defeat graciously. In a surprising way, a loss seemed to bring his detractors begrudgingly to his side, finally respecting the man for going toe to toe against such a formidable opponent, where it became clear how much he had sacrificed. In the next two years, Ali fought ten fights waiting for a rematch with Frazier, but things didn’t go according to plan. First Frazier got knocked out in the second round by George Foreman, who like Liston before him, was literally annihilating his opponents, while a complacent Ali stopped training altogether and was surprised by Ken Norton, who broke his jaw in the 2nd round while winning a split decision, a loss that spurned Ali to get back into fighting shape, winning the rematch 6 months later in a close split-decision, setting up a second non-title rematch with Frazier, known as Super Fight II, the winner to take on Foreman for the championship. Both were in excellent shape, but Frazier had that knockout ringing around his head like a psychological albatross, and this time Ali didn’t allow him to work inside, holding and clinching regularly, tying his hands up, allowing Ali to win a unanimous decision, setting the stage for The Rumble in the Jungle, a Don King production, hyped by music of the Rolling Stones, The Rolling Stones - Sympathy For The Devil (Official Video ... YouTube (8:48).
Set in Zaire, the former Congo, run by a ruthless dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who siphoned money from the diamond markets and stole millions for himself that were sent to offshore accounts, embezzling somewhere between $4 to $15 billion dollars, drinking champagne from France that he had expressly sent in for himself while the roads deteriorated and his nation starved while living an abject poverty. Nonetheless, he guaranteed $10 million dollars for the fighters to share equally which he hoped would bring legitimacy to his country, staging an outdoor event that was watched by a record estimated television audience of 1 billion viewers worldwide, becoming the world’s most-watched live television broadcast at the time. Ali was at home in Africa, describing it as coming back home, met by a teeming throng that adulated him, winning favor with them immediately, while Foreman was uncomfortable in the environment, largely keeping to himself, at times wanting to go home, but Mobutu confiscated his passport. Billed as a battle of Islam versus Christianity, with Ali representing the third world, Foreman was viewed as the white people’s champion, yet he was a heavy favorite, with few believing Ali could win. Ali told jokes and read poetry to reporters, did his roadwork out in the countryside with people swarming all around him, chanting and calling his name, immediately winning their favor. The fight itself was scheduled to go live at 4 am local time in order to be prime time in the US, with Ali offering a surprise rope-a-dope strategy, leaning against the ropes while allowing Foreman to tire himself out, spending his energy throwing punches, mostly hitting his arms, while Ali counterpunched relentlessly, tagging Foreman with heavy jabs to the face. In this manner, Ali protected the energy in his legs by not moving, saving it for the right moment to strike, often coming on at the end of rounds when he staggered Foreman a few times, looking increasingly worn out. By the eighth round, the strain of throwing so many wild shots took its toll, as Foreman’s defenses looked ineffective, so Ali pounced on the opportunity, landing multiple combinations to his head and knocking him out. It felt like a miracle. The jubilation felt in Ali’s camp was met by a shocking yet joyous surprise felt around the world, as Ali, the undisputed champion prior to his exile, had finally come full circle regaining the heavyweight championship. He was back on top of the world. Burns threw in some exquisite artistic touches, scoring the fight to Santana, Santana - Jingo Lo Ba (aka Jingo) (1970) - YouTube (4:41), while the euphoria at the end was paired with Nina Simone, Nina Simone - Feeling Good (Official Video) - YouTube (3:02). A back story developed during the lead-in to the fight, as Ali secretly met and married Veronica Porché (even though he was still married), who became his third wife, falling in love during long walks along the banks of the Congo River, providing an intoxicating atmosphere at nightfall, lending itself to unending complexities back home, adored by two women, often appearing in public with them both, but Belinda, who changed her name to Khalilah, eventually had enough and divorced Ali. In another turn of events, Elijah Muhammad died of congestive heart failure, with the Nation of Islam transferring power to one of his sons, Wallace Muhammad, who introduced many reforms, most emulating the positions of Malcolm X before he died, eliminating the separatist position, banning the concept of devils, accepting whites into the congregation, while claiming his father was not a prophet, bringing the religion into a more mainstream form of Islam, gaining widespread support among the international Muslim community. Veronica bore two children, Laila and Hana, with Laila following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a professional boxer, competing from 1999 to 2007 before retiring undefeated, considered one of the greatest female boxers of all time. But Veronica divorced Ali as well, finally marrying Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams, a neighbor from across the street in Louisville, a good friend of Ali’s parents, initially meeting him as a little girl, yet remaining with him the rest of his life.
Ali’s legend continued with the Thrilla in Manila, the third and final rematch between Ali and George Frazier, once more set in the nation of a corrupt dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, President of the Philippines, amassing somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 to $10 billion dollars, Greatest robbery of a Government | Guinness World Records, mostly kickbacks from public works projects over decades, also pilfering from the billions that the U.S. blindly sent in military aid for more than twenty years, mostly sent to overseas bank accounts, looting so much wealth from the Philippines that, to this day, investigators have difficulty determining precisely how many billions of dollars were stolen. Promoted by Don King, the fight was shown on closed-circuit television in 380 locations in the United States and broadcast to 68 countries worldwide, the first television network production in history delivered from a continuous satellite signal, with Ali, the champion, guaranteed $4.5 million while Frazier was guaranteed $2 million. Despite all the hype, and the history, the fact is this is the beginning of the end, as the match was fought in oppressive tropical heat, made even worse by the heat from the TV lights, with Ali losing 5 pounds due to dehydration. The fight was so viciously fought that both fighters were permanently damaged afterwards, viewed as the most brutal title defense in boxing history, as Ali’s body took a beating, with Ali claiming this is the closest he ever came to death, yet they fought on, where the difference in the fight was Ali’s ability to go on brief flourishes near the end, both men exhausted, eventually closing not one, but both of Frazier’s eyes, where he was fighting nearly blind at the end of the fight. Adding to Frazier’s problems was his corner’s inability to apply an icebag to his eye past the middle rounds, as they simply melted away from the oppressive heat. The turning point in the fight came very late, midway through the thirteenth round when Ali sent Frazier’s mouthpiece flying out of his mouth, forced to fight the rest of the round without it, which seemed to inspire a rally from Ali, while in the fourteenth both men dredged up all their last reserves of strength and power, utterly depleted, with Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch refusing to allow his fighter to answer the bell for the final round, instead throwing in the towel, as his fighter’s eyes were totally closed from the swelling. It was a courageous decision, protecting the life of a fighter, particularly at that historic moment. As it turned out, Ali was ahead on all three scorecards, which may have entered into the decision. Not long afterwards, people detected a noticeable change to Ali’s speech, slowed considerably, with his fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco calling for his immediate retirement from the ring, but he refused to listen. After winning a few more fights, three of his last four fights were losses, losing to young upstart Leon Spinx, former sparring partner Larry Holmes, and Trevor Berbick at the age of 39, yet the damage was done. Watching those last few fights was like watching a trainwreck, as it was ugly to see what was happening to the man who was once the greatest defensive fighter in history, yet he was pummeled late in his career, eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, slurring his speech, until he was finally silenced, shuffling his feet, having difficulty walking across the room, with his hands shaking non-stop. He made one final appearance at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, taking the world completely by surprise in lighting the Olympic torch, Muhammad Ali lights torch at 1996 Olympics | NBC Sports YouTube (1:47), by then a beloved figure all across the world. As New Yorker editor and Ali biographer David Remnick says in the opening minute of this film, “We’ve forgotten the divisiveness,” with Burns himself claiming “He seemed to us at the end almost like a religious figure, almost like the Buddha,” named the athlete of the century by Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. With Nina Simone singing over the closing credits, Nina Simone - I Shall Be Released - YouTube (3:55), his gravestone says, “Service to others is the price you pay for your room in Heaven,” yet what stands out in Ali’s life is how well he handled all the adversity, recalling a sermon from Martin Luther King preached in August 1958, published in a 1963 book of sermons entitled Strength to Love, where he preached, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”