In February 1964 Muhammad Ali, then 22-year-old Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky, proclaimed for the first time “I am the greatest” before snatching, from Sonny Liston, the first of his three world heavyweight boxing titles.
It was true then as now, but as a comprehensive new, four-part PBS documentary Muhammad Ali by the acclaimed film-maker Ken Burns establishes, there was more intricacy to the charismatic and controversial boxer’s life than his towering sporting mythology sometimes allows.
“My dad did not have an easy life,” Rasheda Ali, one of his seven daughters, told the Observer. “He had many divorces, many setbacks, with the supreme court and the draft, and he sacrificed a lot of his livelihood so that his people could be free.”
The documentary, six years in the making and co-directed by Burns’s daughter, Sarah, and David McMahon, draws from 40 years of archival film and arrives at a time of intense cultural change in the US. Rasheda, whom Burns describes as possessing a spirit like her father’s, says she hopes the series tells his story “to a new generation of people who aren’t familiar with people who have large platforms and are socially responsible with them”.
“You can see throughout that this gentle man is outside his comfort zone,” she says. “He was a small-town boy automatically thrust into the mainstream. But even at a young age he was transcendental in his thinking. He always thought his platform would be large, and given the opportunity he would use it to help people. In his 20s he was changing the world, and he probably thought he’d never be in that position.”
Her father, she continues, “faced extreme racism, police brutality, people who are Islamophobic. We’re still fighting that battle now. He can’t be here for us to see, but he can still show us how to take charge and make a difference.”
Burns said he wanted to take on the full arc of Ali’s life. “It’s an attempt to get beyond the conventional wisdom,” he said. “We wanted to tell not just the story of fights, some like Shakespeare with their internal and external drama, but his religious journey and personal life, the intersection with all the important themes in America of the last half of the 20th century – the role of sports, black athletes, questions of black masculinity and manhood, the complicated dynamics of a changing civil rights movement, race, war, politics, sex – all themes we grapple with today.”
Among the themes is the extent to which Ali was scarred by the racially motivated murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. “They were the same age,” Rasheda says. “For him to look at this tragic lynching of this beautiful young boy, it was so abominable that it motivated him to get up and make change. He felt he was on this earth to help people. He wasn’t stuck in this world, he wasn’t hung up on his condition. He was more concerned about where he was going to go after.”
The boxer Jack Johnson, subject of a 2004 Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness, also emerges as a powerful influence, says the film-maker. Indeed, Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee would shout “ghost in the house, ghost in the house” during bouts to remind him that he was not alone.
“Jack Johnson wanted to be his own person and to achieve a kind of freedom. That was intolerable to white society. When they could not beat him in the ring, they went after him in other ways.”
“It was very similar to Ali. They went after him for what they perceived to be political beliefs when they were in fact sincerely held religious beliefs. America couldn’t see a black man making a religious decision so they treated it as a political insult and prosecuted him.”
Rasheda says many African-Americans didn’t agree with her father. “They thought he was ungrateful to come on to a national stage and be braggadocious. They were brain-washed, in a sense.”
Ali’s daughter has carried on his work. She has written two books about living with Parkinson’s, which her father suffered for 30 years until his death five years ago. The jester in him, she says, never disappeared, and he would join in the practical jokes on family members even as his faculties began to fade.
“He never said no to anyone, he was down to earth, and he loved being Muhammed Ali,” Rashada says. “We grew up watching all of this, so how’s that not going to rub off?”
Her son, Nico, became a boxer like his grandfather and aunt Laila. “That was his connection to his grandpa,” she says. “They talked about it, and my dad was excited about him embarking on this career because he loved it so much.”
She feels that her father didn’t choose boxing, but boxing chose him. “There’s is a clip of my father saying, ‘I’m here for reason I don’t know. I just want freedom.’ So we knew boxing was just a platform and he was going to use that platform to do good things.”