Random Lengths News
But it was in his treatment of Joe Frazier, his greatest rival, where Ali’s cruelty is revealed. For the sake of hype and showmanship, the low road of Ali’s public and relentless demeaning of Frazier — who was kind enough to lend Ali money while Ali was struggling financially during his boxing ban — sank all the way down to racist tropes.
But Round Four is the saddest of all. Upon the resumption of Ali’s career, with his once preternatural ring speed slowed to relatively mortal proportions, Ali “discovered he could take a punch” — a blessing and a curse, noted Ali fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco. Although in the mid ‘70s Ali is rich and almost universally adored, we see a man in his mid 30s already sliding into obvious decline, his speech patterns sluggish shadows of what they were just a few years earlier. By the post-fight press conference after the Holmes debacle, the change is painful to behold.
From here it’s mostly downhill, with a Parkinson’s diagnosis in 1985 and Ali’s withdrawal from public life. His lighting of the torch at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta is recalled here more sadly than I experienced it. Yes, it was shocking to see this most vibrant of souls as a locked-in, quivering mass, but what I remember is loving to see him after so much time, and loving to see the obvious outpouring of love for a onetime hurricane of controversy who was now a national treasure.
This, ultimately, is the story of Muhammad Ali as much as it is about the man himself. Previous material may cover specific aspects of Ali’s epic journey better than what Team Burns offers (for example, 1996’s When We Were
Kings is a far more compelling document of
“the Rumble in the Jungle” than the pro forma review we get here), but it’s the arc that makes this eight-hour journey. “It was striking to see this evolution not in Ali,” reflects New Yorker editor David Remnick, “but in us.”
Individuals and societies change, often in unforeseeable ways. The Louisville Lip ended his life in near silence, humble and repentant of his personal foibles. And the world had nothing but love for him. Go figure.
Muhammad Ali premieres Sept. 19 to 22 at 8 to 10 p.m. on PBS.