Filmmaker Ken Burns’ new Series “Muhammad Ali” Debuts Tonight on PBS — 8:00 pm ET
“Muhammad Ali” brings to life one of the most indelible figures of the 20th century, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion who captivated millions of fans across the world with his mesmerizing combination of speed, grace, and power in the ring, and charm and playful boasting outside of it. Ali insisted on being himself unconditionally and became a global icon and inspiration to people everywhere.
Miss the broadcast of Muhammad Ali on TV? All four episodes of Muhammad Ali are available to stream at pbs.org/ali starting September 19 at 8pm ET. Watch full episodes of Muhammad Ali here or on your favorite streaming device: Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android, iOS device, or Samsung Smart TV using the PBS Video app.
You can learn a lot more about this series on PBS.
To say that he was one of a kind would be, at the very least, a huge understatement. Even if one strongly believes that boxing is too violent a sport to be glorified under any circumstances, I hope you would agree that the PBS program is a celebration of Ali’s remarkable life, accomplishments, and contributions.
Given the worldwide acclaim that Muhammad Ali finally achieved, no one diary can do justice to understanding this complicated man. This attempt will briefly look at three of his fights—with Sonny Liston, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier—and his bitter, costly struggle with the United States Government, which tried to draft him to fight a war in a far-away foreign land and one he was determined not to participate in. It also highlights a famous meeting Ali had with the Beatles prior to his first fight with Sonny Liston. In doing so, I hope I would have exposed you to a few photographs, videos, and poems that you may have never seen or read before.
He was much more than a flamboyant and charismatic boxer whose triumphs in the ring thrilled countless fans. Millions more around the world cheered him on for his courageous stands on behalf of freedom of speech and expression. He was called a traitor to his own country and, yet, his principled opposition to war and aggression as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War made him a hero and one to emulate for an entire generation of young people. Freed perhaps from their earlier biases, not many would later question his pugilistic mastery, poetry, and personal bravery.
Along with the likes of Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Muhammad Ali personified the professional athlete unafraid to use his fame to confront racism and speak out on behalf of the underdog in American society. For that alone, not to mention his considerable achievements in the boxing ring, we are indebted to him.
Over five decades ago, Ali confronted the entrenched political establishment of the day — but did so with dignity, conviction, and style — and adopted controversial positions which were, to say the least, extremely unpopular at the time. Unlike irrational behavior displayed by millions in recent years, his principled stands had nothing to do with phony patriotism coupled with calls for the restoration of perceived “lost freedoms” and some imaginary way of life that never was.
His exploits in the boxing arena alone would have been sufficient to enshrine his place in history. That wasn't enough for him. Exercising his free speech rights cost him dearly but his actions reflect a life that epitomizes uncompromising personal integrity and political courage.
Muhammad Ali hovers over Sonny Liston, after knocking him out in the first round of their rematch fight in Lewiston, Maine in May 1965, exhorting him to "Get up and fight, sucker!" The photograph that inspired this sketch is widely considered to be one of the most famous in sports history. Read more about this iconic photograph by Neil Leifer in this Slate magazine article. The title of the diary comes from sportswriter Mark Kram’s report for Sports Illustrated on the 1975 Ali-Frazier fight in Manila, The Philippines.
The Early Years
Sometimes, insignificant events happen that can forever change a person's life. In Ali's case, it was having his bicycle stolen at the age of twelve that would shape and define his entire life.
Who would’ve thought that a stolen bike was the key to the beginning of the Muhammad Ali story? But it was. In 1954 in Louisville, Kentucky, 12-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay’s bike was stolen while he and a friend were at the Columbia Auditorium.
Young Cassius found a cop in a gym, Joe Martin, and boiling with youthful rage, told Martin he was going to "whup" whoever stole his bike. Martin admonished, "You better learn to box first." Within weeks, 89-pound Cassius had his first bout—his first win.
Archana Srinivasan, Bio-Sports Legends (2005), p. 26. Photograph credit: Vancouver Sun.
Author Joyce Carol Oates wrote a wonderful article about Ali and what made him tick in the New York Review of Books.
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942, grandson of a slave, began boxing at the age of twelve, and, by eighteen, had fought 108 amateur bouts. How is it possible that the young man who, in his twenties, would astonish the world not just with the brilliance of his boxing but the sharpness of his wit seems to have been a dull-average student in high school who graduated 376th out of a class of 391? In 1966, his score on a mental aptitude test was an Army IQ of 78, well below military qualification. In 1975, Ali confessed to a reporter that he “can’t read too good” and had not read ten pages of all the material written about him. I remember the television interview in which, asked what else he might have done with his life, Ali paused, for several seconds, clearly not knowing how to reply. All he’d ever known, he said finally, was boxing.
Mental aptitude tests cannot measure genius except in certain narrow ranges, and the genius of the body, the play of lightning-swift reflexes coupled with unwavering precision and confidence, eludes comprehension. All great boxers possess this genius, which scrupulous training hones, but can never create. “Styles make fights,” as Ali’s great trainer Angelo Dundee says, and “style” was young Ali’s trademark.
Joyce Carol Oates, "The Cruelest Sport." The above video traces Ali's early career as a young boxer in Louisville, Kentucky and has video clips of several of those fights. Alone among his contemporaries, he had an unorthodox fighting style, with his hands staying down most of the time. Instead, he relied heavily upon his speed and quickness to elude his opponent's punches.
In 2001, a biographical movie was released, for which actor Will Smith had to gain a considerable amount of weight to play the starring role.
In 1964, a brash new pro boxer, fresh from his olympic gold medal victory, explodes on to the scene, Cassius Clay. Bold and outspoken, he cuts an entirely new image for African Americans in sport with his proud public self confidence with his unapologetic belief that he is the greatest boxer of all time. To his credit, he sets out to prove that with his highly agile and forceful style soon making him a formidable boxer who soon claims the heavyweight championship.
His personal life is no less noteworthy with his allegiance to the Nation of Islam, his friendship with the controversial Malcolm X and his abandonment of his slave name in favour of Muhammad Ali stirring up controversy. Yet, at the top of his game, both Ali's personal and professional lives face the ultimate test with the military draft rules are changed, making him eligible for military induction during the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that he could easily agree to a sweetheart deal that would have meant an easy tour of duty for himself, Ali refuses to submit on principle to cooperate in an unjust war for a racist nation that treated his people so poorly. The cost of that stand is high as he finds himself unable to legally box in his own country while his case is contested in court.
What follows is a battle for a man who would sacrifice so much for what he believes in and a comeback that would cement his legend as one of the great sports figures of all time.
Becoming a Media Sensation and Achieving Fame
John Lennon may have been right when he claimed in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ had ever been in his time. But it wouldn't last long for them. Far more than kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, priests, scientists, and, yes, even famous rock 'n roll musicians, it was a young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky who soared to such heights in the 1960's that he, alone, would arguably become the most recognized person in the world.
Supremely confident of his own skills and possessing a magnetic personality coupled with a quick wit, he could "float like a butterfly" and "sting like a bee." He would make outrageous claims before his highly-publicized fights and, somehow, miraculously make them come true in the ring.
Everyone loves a winner. The Beatles only met Cassius Clay (as Ali was known at the time) by default after Sonny Liston refused to be photographed with them. John Lennon was skeptical of being associated with Clay for he didn't think he (Clay) could beat Liston in their upcoming fight. However, they also needed each other for media publicity for neither Clay nor the Beatles had yet achieved the worldwide fame and acclaim that they would in spectacular fashion in the years to come.
Reporter Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times describes the memorable encounter.
This video details the pre-fight hype and publicity. It also shows a few more photographs of the Beatles posing with Clay.
As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him…
They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.”
And then—if I hadn’t known better I would have sworn it was choreographed—he turned and the Beatles followed him out to the ring… They followed him out to the ring and they began capering around the room. They lined up. He tapped Ringo. They all went down like dominoes. It was a marvelous, antic set piece.
"Robert Lipsyte describes how Cassius Clay met The Beatles" — Readers Almanac. Photo credit: Smithsonian.com. Read more about this encounter in "Winner by a Decision" by Lipsyte in Smithsonian magazine. See these two videos about Ali, Liston, and the Beatles—Muhammad Ali training for Liston and meeting the Beatles and Cassius Clay Conquers The Beatles. A week later, Clay would defeat Sonny Liston to become World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
Confronting "The Big Bear" With Poetic Style
Cassius Clay appeared on NBC's The Jack Paar Show in late 1963 and talked about his achievements as a young professional boxer and explained to Paar (video) as to why he would defeat the “Big Bear,” Sonny Liston.
He then recited one of the versions of the below poem, with Liberace playing the piano.
This is the Legend of Cassius Clay
“This is the legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal, and brags indeed-y,
of a muscular punch that's incredibly speed-y.
The fistic world was dull and weary,
But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.
Then someone with color and someone with dash,
Brought fight fans are runnin' with Cash.
This brash young boxer is something to see
And the heavyweight championship is his des-tin-y.
This kid fights great; he’s got speed and endurance,
But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
This kid's got a left; this kid's got a right,
If he hit you once, you're asleep for the night.
And as you lie on the floor while the ref counts ten,
You’ll pray that you won’t have to fight me again.
For I am the man this poem’s about,
The next champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt.
This I predict and I know the score,
I’ll be champ of the world in ’64.
When I say three, they’ll go in the third,
10 months ago
So don’t bet against me, I’m a man of my word.
He is the greatest! Yes!
I am the man this poem’s about,
I’ll be champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt.
Here I predict Mr. Liston’s dismemberment,
I’ll hit him so hard; he’ll wonder where October and November went.
When I say two, there’s never a third,
Standin against me is completely absurd.
When Cassius says a mouse can outrun a horse,
Don’t ask how; put your money where your mouse is!
I AM THE GREATEST!” link
Also see this terrific video in which he talks a little bit of poetry and performs a magic trick in February 1963 to the amazement of CBS's Ed Sullivan, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) talks with Ed Sullivan.
Few boxing experts gave Cassius Clay a chance to win against Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight boxing champion and one who possessed the hardest punch in the sport. Liston was not one to mess around with.
In a pre-fight publicity poem that predicted Liston's defeat, Clay sketched the outcome in advance.
A Total Eclipse of Sonny Liston
Clay comes out to meet Liston
and Liston starts to retreat,
if Liston goes back an inch farther
he’ll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with his left,
Clay swings with his right,
Look at young Cassius
carry the fight
Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room,
It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay lands with a right,
What a beautiful swing,
and the punch raises the Bear
clean out of the ring.
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
For he can’t start counting
till Sonny goes down.
Now Liston is disappearing from view,
The crowd is going frantic,
But radar stations have picked him up,
Somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought
when they came to the fight?
That they’d witness the launching
of a human satellite.
Yes the crowd did not dream,
when they put up the money,
That they would see
a total eclipse of the Sonny.
— Watch the video YouTube.
The above video has highlights from the first Ali-Liston fight in 1964. Both fights between the two boxers generated a great deal of controversy and unsubstantiated rumors that Liston threw the fights either because he was under the influence of the mob or afraid of the Nation of Islam.
Defying all odds, Clay would defeat Liston by a technical knockout in the 6th round on February 25, 1964, to become the heavyweight champion of the world.
A week later, he would change his name to Muhammad Ali. Defending his title nine times over the next three years, he would be stripped of his title in April 1967 for refusing induction in the United States Armed Forces.
"I Ain't Got No Quarrel With the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Ni***r."
What was behind Ali's refusal to be inducted and fight in Vietnam?
Ali was the first national figure to speak out against the Vietnam War.
On August 23, 1966, Muhammad Ali embarked on the biggest "fight" of his life when he applied with the Selective Service for conscientious objector status on religious grounds (as a minister with the Nation of Islam). In what became an extensive legal, political, professional, and personal battle, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his boxing title, and became a lightning rod—and a voice—for opinions on the Vietnam War.
Muhammad Ali's willingness to speak out against racism in the United States, and the affect it had on domestic and foreign policy, earned him many supporters and detractors. In 1971, nearly five years after it began, Ali's legal battle finally culminated with a unanimous decision (8-0 with Thurgood Marshall abstaining) by the United States Supreme Court overturning his draft conviction.
"African-American Involvement in the Vietnam War". In the above video, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. forcefully condemns the need for a military draft and defends Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam, a war he had referred to as "objectionable, abominable, and unjust." Watch this video in which Ali details how he was perceived as a black man in the United States and the reasons why he held no grudges against the Viet Cong.
In a bygone era of professional sports—when athletes were unafraid to express opinions on political issues—Ali received a great deal of support from other prominent black athletes, notable among them Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar).
Football star Jim Brown organized a meeting in Cleveland, Ohio to show solidarity for Ali’s decision to oppose the Vietnam War on moral grounds. Years later, Brown would reflect upon the meeting.
That was a situation that had to be addressed. I was the president of the Black Economic Union, John Wooten was my executive director. I called John from London and told him to contact all of the top black athletes from around the country and have them meet Ali in Cleveland so we could discuss his situation with the draft.
They all showed up and we had about a three-hour meeting with him [Ali] in the back room of my office in Cleveland. [We] realized that he was very sincere in his position and that because of his religion, he was not going to go into the Army and we backed him… It was a very wonderful thing to have these young players not worry about risking their careers, but getting the right information from the horse's mouth so that they could make judgment on this man's action.
Branson Wright, "NBA 'Free-agent Summit' a Reminder of a 1967 Event in Cleveland That Wasn't about Money," Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 1, 2010. In this video at the 2:55 mark, comedian George Carlin talks about the upcoming Ali-Frazier fight and Ali’s refusal to kill people in Vietnam. Carlin points out that brutal as the sport of boxing is, it is not the same thing as war which involves using sophisticated machines to kill people on a large scale.
"The Rumble in the Jungle" and Rope-a-Dope
A great deal has been said and written about this fight since 1974, one that cemented Ali’s reputation as “The Greatest.” In this hysterically funny pre-fight promotional video, Ali tried to "psych out" George Foreman.
I Had a Dream
Last night I had a dream, When I got to Africa,
I had one hell of a rumble.
I had to beat Tarzan’s behind first,
For claiming to be King of the Jungle.
For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning
And throw thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
just last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
I’m so fast, man,
I can run through a hurricane and don't get wet.
When George Foreman meets me,
He’ll pay his debt.
I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree.
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.
— audio version of the speech.
If you have never seen this terrific documentary about the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, please do so. When We Were Kings features many media and literary celebrities including Howard Cosell, James Brown, B.B. King, Don King, Norman Mailer, and George Plimpton. Author Norman Mailer also wrote a wonderful book about the fight, The Fight. I highly recommend it.
"The Thrilla in Manila" — Ali-Frazier III
The third and final fight between Muhammad Ali and arch rival Joe Frazier in 1975 may have been the most vicious of all fights in boxing history. The exploits and legacies of Ali and Frazier are forever linked in our collective memory.
This is an excerpt from the classic account of this fight by Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated.
The maddest of existentialists, one of the great surrealists of our time, the king of all he sees, Ali had never before appeared so vulnerable and fragile, so pitiably unmajestic, so far from the universe he claims as his along. He could barely hold his fork, and he lifted the food slowly up to his bottom lip, which had been scraped pink. The skin on his face was dull and blotched, his eyes drained of that familiar childlike wonder. His right eye was a deep purple, beginning to close, a dark blind being drawn against a harsh light. He chewed his food painfully, and then he suddenly moved away from the candles as if he had become aware of the mask he was wearing, as if an inner voice were laughing at him. He shrugged, and the moment was gone.
A couple of miles away in the bedroom of a villa, the man who has always demanded answers of Ali, has trailed the champion like a timber wolf, lay in semidarkness. Only his heavy breathing disturbed the quiet as an old friend walked to within two feet of him. "Who is it?" asked Joe Frazier, lifting himself to look around. "I can't see! I can't see! Turn the lights on!" Another light was turned on, but Frazier still could not see. The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will never before seen in a ring, a will that had carried him so far -- and now surely too far. His eyes were only slits, his face looked as if it had been painted by Goya. "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," said Frazier. "Lawdy, Lawdy, he's a great champion." Then he put his head back down on the pillow, and soon there was only the heavy breathing of a deep sleep slapping like big waves against the silence.
Time may well erode that long morning drama in Manila, but for anyone who was there those faces will return again and again to evoke what it was like when two of the greatest heavyweights of any era met for a third time, and left millions limp around the world. Muhammad Ali caught the way it was: "It was like death. Closest thing to dyin' that I know of."
'Lawdy, Lawdy, He's Great,' Mark Kram, Sports Illustrated. The "Thrilla in Manilla" was the third and final fight between two of the greatest boxers in history, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, for the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. It took place on October 1, 1975 at the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City in Manilla, Philippines. Photograph credit: UpRoxx.
Muhammad Ali stepped up to take on the political establishment at a crucial time in our country's history and criticize the American role in Vietnam when few public figures dare do so. His suspension cost him millions of dollars and earned him the enmity of many of his countrymen. Yet, Ali stood firm in his beliefs and history has proved him right.
Vindication is sweet revenge in life.
How should we remember this man? Let him explain it himself, as he did in this 1974 interview with David Frost.
David Frost: What would you like people to think about you when you've gone?
Muhammad Ali: I'd like for them to say:
He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience, One teaspoon of generosity, One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter, One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith, And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime, And he served it to it to each and every deserving person he met.
There has never, ever been someone like him. And, it is unlikely we will ever see the likes of Muhammad Ali again in our lifetime.
Remember to take the diary poll. If you ever met Ali in person or saw him at a gathering, do share your memories.
I first posted a shorter version of this diary in 2011 when Ali’s arch-rival in the boxing ring, Joe Frazier, passed away.