If you did not get a chance to see the Ken Burns documentary this past week on Muhammad Ali, by all means, go watch it when you can.
The program was on PBS, and all four episodes — or ‘Rounds’ as Burns and his people dubbed them — can now be streamed on PBS.org. Or you can wait for the inevitable repeats, some soon and others during pledge drives.
The Ken Burns documentaries are always fascinating. Some of them, like his Civil War, Baseball and Country Music documentaries taught me much I never knew about the subject matter. With the Ali documentary, it was different.
I was admittedly a little too young to pay attention when Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won the Olympic Gold Medal as a heavyweight in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. But when it came to The Greatest’s professional career, I basically knew everything.
I certainly recalled the fights with Sonny Liston, and particularly the one in Lewiston, Maine. That’s where the late singer Robert Goulet somehow forgot the lyrics to the National Anthem.
I remember the Liston fights. I recalled the Floyd Patterson fight. Ali’s battles with George Foreman, Ken Norton, et al, were on my radar screen.
But when I watched, the Round 3 episode really took me back. Round 3 handled the Ali-Frazier rivalry, and the only time I really rooted against Ali.
That’s because I was an adopted son of Philadelphia, living there at the time while I attended college. We rooted for Joe Frazier because Smokin’ Joe was Philly.
Frazier’s gym was nine blocks up North Broad Street from the dorms at Temple University. When local Berkshire County pro athletes play for teams that were rivals of the local teams, we tend to root for them. For those of us who considered ourselves Philadelphians, it was the same way.
In fact, it used to be a highlight when we traveled up North Broad to the football and baseball complex out in Reggie Jackson’s home of Cheltenham we would go by the Frazier gym and sometimes expected him to be out front holding court. He never did.
Now, there’s pay-per-view in your home to watch boxing, wrestling or MMA shows. Back in the 1970s, fights were either on network television or on pay-per-view in movie theaters.
Remember back when the Pittsfield American Little League All-Stars were trying to get to Williamsport in 2018, some of the ESPN streaming broadcasts and the final were shown in the Beacon Cinema downtown. It was like that with boxing back in Ali’s heyday — except it cost $40 a ticket.
We actually sat in the lounge on the floor in our dorm back in 1971 and listened — yep, on the radio — to the blow-by-blow of the first Ali-Frazier fight. A majority, but not all of us, were happy when Smokin’ Joe won.
Ali was the greatest champion of the latter half of the 20th Century in any sport. He took on all comers, beat most of them. He took on the establishment in a battle over serving in Vietnam after being drafted. Ali was stripped of his title and had been sentenced to go to prison. Ali appealed and right after the first Ali-Frazier fight, the United States Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
Ali had it all, in and out of the ring. He was big, strong, quick, had a devastating right hand, invented the “Rope-a-dope” in the ring. The Rope-a-dope had Ali pretend to be trapped along the ropes while his opponent punched himself tired. Then Ali countered with vicious shots. The phrase has adapted into an all-encompassing one, and it is used in other sports and in politics.
The documentary covered Ali, warts and all. His followings of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and his split with Malcolm X are covered in great detail. Those are areas that sports fans likely knew the basics of. The way Burns and the people who work on these documentaries dig deep and get much that we don’t really know or thought we knew is their real gift.
And a shoutout to actor Keith David, whose narration is spot on. Between David, Peter Coyote and the late John Chancellor, Ken Burns always hits it out of the park with the narrator.
It’s eight hours of really good television, far better than “The Bachelor,” and more than worth your time.