Things don’t always go according to plan in the world of documentary filmmaking.
The producers of the new PBS biography of Muhammad Ali had planned to do a three-part, six-hour program on the life of the Louisville-born boxing legend who called himself “the greatest of all time.”
But after completing the initial draft of the third episode, co-producer and co-writer Sarah Burns says they were only up to 1974, when Ali still had half of his life ahead of him and two heavyweight championship titles to win.
“It’s just such a big life and there’s so much to this story,” she says. “We wanted to do something that was going to get to his family life, his childhood, obviously his boxing career… we wanted to understand the spiritual journey, his draft resistance, all of these different pieces, and tie them together into one big portrait.”
That resulted in a four-part, eight-hour documentary created by Burns along with her father, Ken Burns, and her husband David McMahon. Over six years, Sarah Burns and her team travelled the country to uncover archival film of Ali and talk with people who knew him, reported on him, or were inspired by him.
“Everyone has an Ali story… that they’ve carried with them for their entire lives from meeting him for five seconds,” she says. “It’s perhaps his greatest talent more so than as a boxer was that ability to make other people feel special, and feel seen, and feel loved even in these incredibly brief encounters.”
From West Louisville to International Acclaim
Ali’s story began in Louisville where he was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in 1942.
“Certainly, Louisville is hugely important in shaping who Cassius Clay was,” Burns says, “for better and for worse.”
On the one hand, she says Clay experienced the injustices of growing up in a southern city during the Jim Crow era, where he faced segregated schools and business and limited economic opportunities. On the other hand, she says Clay was part of a stable home environment and a vibrant West End neighborhood that was secure and supportive of the charismatic, energetic child.
Clay was a scrawny 12-year old when he started boxing lessons after a thief stole his new bicycle from a downtown street. Burns says Clay threw himself into the training and developed a distinctive style in the ring that worked to his advantage.
“He kept his hands low, he leaned back to avoid punches when no trainer would’ve told you to do that,” she says. “That’s not how you were supposed to box.”
Clay quickly rose to boxing prominence, winning two national Golden Gloves titles and an Olympic gold medal by the time he was 18. His work ethic, boxing technique, boundless confidence, and flair for self-promotion won him his first heavyweight title in 1964, defeating the older, more experienced favorite Sonny Liston.
Soon after that match, Clay announced his membership in the Nation of Islam and a new name for himself: Muhammad Ali. Burns says Ali first heard about Black Muslim teachings when he was growing up in Louisville, but once he launched his professional career, Ali became close to Nation of Islam leaders Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Burns says the religion helped Ali make sense of the world around him.
“To really understand his life, I think we have to think about it as a spiritual journey,” she says. “This is a person who is asking these big questions and who is finding some answers in the Nation of Islam, but it evolves across his whole life.”
Exile from Boxing, Return to the Ring, and Enduring Legacy
Ali’s faith led him to one of the most critical decisions of his life: Saying the Quran opposed wars, he refused induction into the United States Army during the Vietnam War. The move cost Ali his heavyweight title and his boxing license. He would not fight for the next three years.
“A lot of people saw him as a draft dodger,” says Burns. “I think people really came to respect him for that stance because of what he gave up.”
During his exile from the ring, Ali toured the country speaking against the war, increasing his profile beyond the boxing world. It wasn’t until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971 that Ali was able to resume his career without the threat of a prison sentence hanging over his head. He was 29 years old.
“It was a tough climb, he was not the same fighter when he returned,” says Burns. “You see him getting a kind of punishment in some of those fights later in his career that he didn’t experience early on.”
Ali would go on to win the heavyweight title two more times and accrue an overall career record of 56 wins and five losses. But years of body blows took a toll, and Ali announced a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in 1984. In retirement and declining health, Ali continued to build on his global fame with his humanitarian and philanthropic work.
Burns says part of Ali’s gift to Black individuals around the world was his consistent proclamations of his own beauty and greatness.
“I think that that’s a huge part of his influence is that ability to say, ‘I am proud of myself, I am who I am, and I’m going to be my authentic self,’” she says. “That’s also a way of saying, ‘You are the greatest, too.’”
Ali had been out of the limelight for several years when organizers of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta asked him to light the flame at the opening ceremonies. Burns says Ali initially declined the offer because he didn’t want to be seen in poor health. That’s when photographer and long-time Ali friend Howard Bingham stepped in to convince the retired boxer of how inspirational it would be for him to appear before a worldwide audience. When Ali took the torch and lit the caldron, Burns says Ali received an outpouring of love and support, even from those who had never liked him before.
“I think a lot of people were able to embrace him in that moment, but that’s a moment when he is so vulnerable, he’s so fragile, he’s shaking, and he’s unable to speak,” she says.
When Ali died in 2016, tributes poured in from around the world, and his memorial service in Louisville drew an estimated 1 billion viewers around the globe. Burns says she thinks that even if Cassius Clay had never stumbled into boxing lessons as a boy, we would still know his name.
“He knew it himself from the time he was a child that he was born to do great things,” she says. “He understood the impact he had on other people and I think that influenced what he did and why because he knew he had this power, this charisma, and that he really shared himself with other people,”