Floating and stinging as it explores the boxing icon’s life inside the ring and out, “Muhammad Ali” is another epic Ken Burns-produced dive into the life of an influential 20th-century figure, coming on the heels of “Hemingway.” Much has said about Ali, but going the distance with this four-part PBS documentary makes it feel like, well, the greatest.
Coming shortly after Netflix’s “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” and two years after HBO’s “What’s My Name/Muhammad Ali,” the heart of this production comes in the attention to detail, from providing brief biographies of Ali’s key opponents to examining the rise of the Nation of Islam, which the boxer controversially joined after winning the title as Cassius Clay in 1964, having just turned 22.
“Muhammad Ali” is also greatly enriched by the voices enlisted by directors Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon (whose previous collaborations include “Jackie Robinson” and “The Central Park Five”), from New Yorker editor David Remnick noting that people forget how “incredibly divisive” Ali was to novelist Walter Mosley, who speaks of his apprehensions watching Ali roil the establishment in those years. As Mosley puts it, he was “a spark, and I was standing in a field of gasoline.”
The documentary deftly balances Ali’s biography and complicated personal life with his extraordinary gifts as a boxer, combining stunning hand and foot speed for a heavyweight with an ability to take a punch that would eventually become a liability, given the enormous toll that all those blows took on him.
Former boxer Michael Bentt is especially good at describing Ali’s skills, while sportswriter Dave Kindred articulates the guilt that many felt during later years, having thrilled to Ali’s exploits and helped create the market that caused him to become a shadow of himself due to Parkinson’s disease before his death in 2016.
Ali’s story also covers growing up Black in Kentucky – and being greatly influenced by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, who was only a year older – winning gold at the 1960 Olympics, embracing Islam and declaring his conscientious objector status to the Vietnam war. That last decision not only triggered a backlash but interrupted his career at his apex, followed by regaining the championship multiple times, including his memorable fights with Joe Frazier.
Burns and company don’t soft-peddle Ali’s excesses and transgressions, from the racially tinged insults he flung at Frazier and before him Sonny Liston to his abandonment of Malcolm X, an action he later admitted regretting.
Yet there is also the Ali who joshed with reporters, generously gave away money to strangers and spouted poetry as he boasted about his talents, claiming to have adopted that tactic after watching the wrestler Gorgeous George.
Ali could also be brutal in the ring, toying with Floyd Patterson and pummeling Ernie Terrell – who had insisted on calling him Cassius Clay – yelling “What’s my name?” at him between punches.
The documentary is filled with those kind of details, such as Ali having lost to Ken Norton after not training seriously, and spending hours before the fight in bed with two women. Of his serial infidelity, former wife Khalilah Ali says, “I just let him do what he had to do.”
Even at more than seven hours “Muhammad Ali” doesn’t contain much appreciable fat, a testament to what a larger-than-life figure Ali was and the imprint he left on sports, politics and culture.
Ali biographer Jonathan Eig notes that losing to Frazier in 1971 humanized the fighter, in a way that he hadn’t been before for many. “This is when Ali really becomes popular in America,” he says.
Burns has captured that humanity as well as the greatness, in a way that rumbles with the sheer scope of Ali’s legacy and impressively comes out on top.
“Muhammad Ali” will air Sept. 19-22 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.