- [Narrator] He was bigger than boxing.
- [Ali] I am the greatest.
- [Narrator] He was larger than life.
- [Man] His magnetism just was amazing.
Who is this guy?
- [Man] He was a revolutionary.
He was a groundbreaker.
- And ain't nobody gonna stop me.
- [Narrator] Ken Burns captures an intimate story of victory, defeat, and determination.
- The price of freedom comes high.
I have faith, but I am free.
- [Narrator] "Muhammad Ali," tune in or stream, start Sunday September 19th at 8/7 Central only on PBS.
- Good evening, and welcome to our second event in our discussion series, "Conversations on Muhammad Ali," presented by PBS and ESPN's The Undefeated.
I'm Sylvia Bugg, Chief Programming Executive at PBS.
25 years ago today in Atlanta, an ailing Muhammad Ali, who was physically suffering from Parkinson's disease, surprised the world when he took the Olympic torch from Janet Evans, one of our guests this evening, and lit the Olympic cauldron.
It was a historic moment.
Nearly 40 years earlier at the Rome Olympics in 1960, Ali stepped onto the world stage, taking home the gold.
The 18-year-old Ali easily won all four of his fights.
He never left the world stage, the topic of our conversation this evening.
Many of his fights took place in other countries: the UK, Canada, West Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Ireland, Indonesia, Zaire, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Bahamas.
But even beyond boxing, he was perhaps, during his long career, the most famous American, drawing crowds wherever he traveled, but equally, inspiring young people across borders.
And while Ali was an American through and through, he was also international in perspective, recognizing and speaking about his bond to Africa as an African American.
Ali often said, "I am African."
Africa meant so much to him, but as others have commented, he meant even more to Africa.
This September, PBS is delighted to present the latest from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon and their team, a four-part documentary series on the global icon, Muhammad Ali.
This series takes us deep into the life of one of the most indelible figures of the 20th century, showing us the true nature of the man who called himself "the greatest" and proved it.
The discussion will explore how Ali understood the world, and how the world embraced him, leading up to that extraordinary moment when the Olympic medalist, Janet Evans, handed him the torch in Atlanta in 1996.
Joining Janet Evans and Ken Burns are Dr. Todd Boyd, professor of race and culture at the University of Southern California, and ESPN and The Undefeated senior writer, Lonnae O'Neal, who will moderate this evening's conversation.
We will begin the discussion with the introduction to the film.
Thank you for joining us this evening, and don't forget to tune into the premiere of "Muhammad Ali" on September 19th at 8:00 pm Eastern time on PBS.
- [Muhammad] You want some breakfast?
- [Child] I want some Corn Flakes.
- Can I have some of your Corn Flakes?
Oh, I don't want none.
I won't take none, I won't take none.
I won't eat none if you don't want me to.
Ooh, look at that pretty horsey!
- Is that a white horse?
Now, stand up, look over there.
Stand up, you gotta stand up.
Over that building.
See the big, look, there he is!
(utensil clangs) (hand slaps) What?
(man chuckles) What's wrong?
(crowd cheers) - [Crowd] Ali!
- My earliest memories that I can think of as a child with my father are walking through airports and being in crowds, and feeling in my, the vibrations of people's clapping and shouts in my chest, and just looking at my dad, you know, like, who is this person?
(crowd cheers) And it was all the time, anywhere we went.
"You're the greatest, we love you!"
And the clapping, and, "Muhammad!"
- (speaks foreign language) (crowd repeats) (speaks foreign language) - [Hana] And I loved feeling all the energy and the love that he felt.
(crowd chants) - We now think of Muhammad Ali as this vulnerable guy lighting the torch in Atlanta, and everybody on the globe loves him.
Black people like him, white people.
He's a universal hero, like, but almost in a religious way, like the Buddha, but when he was in the midst of his career, and not just in the early bit, he was incredibly divisive.
(crowd jeers) - Boo, yell and scream, throw peanuts, but whatever you do, pay to get in.
- People hated him.
Whether it was along racial lines, class lines, Vietnam lines, political lines, religious lines, or they just couldn't stand him, and people, of course, said the opposite, and this was, "I loved him, loved him."
But you had an opinion about him.
(suspenseful music) (buzzer sounds) - What's my name, huh?
What's my name?
He can't do battle!
It's gonna take a good man to whup me!
You can look at me, I'm more than a confident.
I can't beat me.
I had 180 amateur fights, 22 professional fights, and I'm pretty as a girl.
Look how pretty I am.
(crowd murmurs) My long, trim legs and my beautiful arms and a pretty nose and mouth.
I know I'm a pretty man.
I know I'm pretty.
You don't have to tell me I'm pretty.
I'm cocky, I'm proud.
Never talk about who's gonna stop me, 'cause ain't nobody gonna stop me!
I say what I want to say.
Ain't no more big niggers talking like this.
(upbeat music) - He was a pioneer.
He was a revolutionary.
He was a groundbreaker.
A guy known simply as "The Greatest."
- I am the greatest!
I've wrastled with alligators, I've tussled with a whale, I done handcuffed lightning and put thunder in jail.
You know I'm bad.
Back off of me, man.
Back off of me, man!
I can drown a drink of water and kill a dead tree.
This will be no contest.
Wait 'til you see Muhammad Ali.
♪ I'm a wade, I'm a wave ♪ - To tap that hutzpah, and to be a Black man in America was just, it was outlandish.
(crowd cheers) - Muhammad means "worthy of all praises," and Ali means "most high."
And I just don't think I should go 10,000 miles in there and shoot some Black people that never called me nigger.
I just can't shoot 'em.
I always wondered why Miss America was always white.
Santa Claus was white.
White Swan Soap, King White Soap, White Cloud tissue paper, and everything bad was black.
Black cat was the bad luck, and if I threaten you, I'm gonna blackmail you.
(audience laughs) "So Mama, why don't they call it whitemail?
"They lie, too."
- I loved being around him.
I loved being around Muhammad Ali.
- [Muhammad] You gonna float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
- [Both] Ahh!
- Rumble, young man, rumble.
- [Both] Ahh!
- [Muhammad] The price of freedom runs high.
I have paid, but I am free.
♪ Freedom, freedom, I can't move ♪ ♪ Freedom, cut me loose ♪ - [Announcer] The winner is, and still heavyweight champion of the world!
(audience chants) - [Muhammad] I'm the greatest of all time.
Of all time!
♪ Rot in hell ♪ ♪ Hey, I'ma keep running ♪ ♪ 'Cause a winner don't quit on themselves ♪ (upbeat music) (crowd roars) (slow jazz music) - [Narrator] He called himself "The Greatest," and then proved it to the entire world.
He was a master at what is called the sweet science, the brutal and sometimes beautiful art of boxing.
Heavyweight champion at just 22 years old, he wrote his own rules in the ring and in his life, infuriating his critics, baffling his opponents, and riveting millions of fans.
(slow jazz music) At the height of the civil rights movement, he joined a separatist religious sect whose leader would, for a time, dominate both his personal life and his boxing career.
He spoke his mind and stood on principle, even when it cost him his livelihood.
He redefined Black manhood, yet belittled his greatest rival using the racist language of the Jim Crow South in which he had been raised.
(crowd murmurs) Banished for his beliefs, he returned to boxing an underdog, reclaimed his title twice, and became the most famous man on Earth.
He craved adulation his whole life, seeking crowds on street corners, in hotel lobbies, on airport tarmacs, everywhere he went, and reveled in the uninhibited joy he brought each adoring fan.
(slow jazz music) He earned a massive fortune, spent it freely, and gave generously to family, friends, even strangers.
Anyone in need.
"Service to others," he often said, "is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth."
(slow jazz music) Even after his body began to betray him and his brain had absorbed too many blows, he fought on, unable to go without the attention and drama that accompanied each bout.
(slow jazz music) Later, slowed and silenced by a cruel and crippling disease, he found refuge in his faith, becoming a symbol of peace and hope on every continent.
(slow jazz music) "Muhammad Ali was," the novelist Norman Mailer wrote, "the very spirit of the 20th century."
(slow jazz music) - I'm always going to be one Black one who got big on your white televisions, on your white newspapers, on your satellites, million dollar checks, and still look you in your face and tell you the truth, and 100% stay with and represent my people, and not leave 'em and sell 'em out because I'm rich, and stay with 'em.
That was my purpose.
I'm here, and I'm showing the world that you can be here and still free, and stay yourself, and get respect from the world.
(buzzer sounds) - All right, we are all here.
Can you hear me?
We're all good?
Hi, everyone, I'm Lonnae O'Neal with The Undefeated, and I am delighted to be here tonight for our conversation, "Ali On the World's Stage."
I'm joined in this virtual space by our illustrious panel.
Ken Burns, whose 40 years of filmmaking has given us some of the most revealing and acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, and who now brings us this sweeping new look at the life and meaning of Muhammad Ali.
Ken, thank you for being here, and for making such a monumental film.
- Thank you, Lonnae.
- We have Todd Boyd, aka "the Notorious PhD."
(Ken chuckles) He is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture, as well as professor of cinema and media studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Dr. Boyd shares his insights in the Muhammad Ali documentary, and we're looking forward to hearing his thoughts tonight.
Thank you so much, Dr. Boyd.
- Thank you.
- We are also very lucky to be joined by five-time Olympic medalist Janet Evans.
She's the chief athlete officer of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Committee, and it was Evans who passed the Olympic flame to Ali at the opening ceremony of the Atlanta 1996 Games.
Janet, thank you so much for being here.
- Honored, thank you for having me.
- As we all know, this is the 25th anniversary of the lighting of that Olympic torch, and, almost to the minute.
And so, for those of us who remember seeing it live, I think we scarcely could have imagined the impact and the staying power that moment would have, both here in the United States and around the world.
Ken, can you set up the clip we're gonna watch, and, that became such an enduring image of Ali on the world stage?
- Of course, Lonnae, and thank you so much for having me this evening.
We're so excited to share the film, and I'm speaking on behalf of my two codirectors, Sarah Burns and David McMahon.
Sarah is my oldest daughter and David is my son-in-law, and we have been collaborating on a number of things, no more more important to ourselves and our hearts than this one.
They were also, Sarah and Dave, the writer of this.
And so, you know, sort of out of sequence, we want to jump ahead, given this distinguished panel, and show you a clip from very near the end of the fourth episode of four in our film.
It is 1996, exactly 25 years ago tonight to the moment, as you said, Lonnae.
He's been out of the public eye for awhile, and this is just a short, brief clip of us trying to come to terms with one of the most powerful moments in his life, a great human moment for him, but an even greater moment for humanity where billions of people got to share the same moment of healing together, and it's an indelible moment, so let's roll the next clip.
(mumbles) (slow hip-hop music) - [Narrator] In 1996, the Olympic Committee planning the Summer Games in Atlanta asked Muhammad Ali to light the torch at the opening ceremonies.
At first, Ali declined.
He didn't want to be seen shaking and stumbling on that stage, but his friend Howard Bingham convinced him.
"This is the thing where the world is saying thank you for all that you've done over your life," Bingham told him.
"There will be 3 billion people watching."
(crowd cheers) (triumphant music) - [Narrator] The plans were kept secret.
- [Announcer] Do you recognize her?
(triumphant music) Considered the greatest female distance swimmer of all times.
(crowd cheers) - And it was planned very brilliantly.
I mean, people really thought the swimmer Janet Evans was going to be the person who was going to light that torch, but instead, out of nowhere comes Muhammad Ali.
(slow guitar music) (crowd cheers) ♪ It's a long ♪ ♪ I'll take the long road ♪ - You hadn't really seen him in awhile.
You knew he was sick, and when you would see him, he was clearly showing the effects of the illness, but he hadn't been seen that much, and then, here he is in this big prominent moment, and he's holding that torch and he's shaking.
And I, man, I'm about to cry now.
It was hard to watch, because you don't want to see your guy like that.
You don't want to see that, but you saw it.
(slow guitar music) - He was defenseless.
Now, he can't hurt us anymore.
You know, he can't make us mad anymore, (slow guitar music) because now he's, the game that we ask him to play to entertain us has left him looking like this.
And now, we feel some sympathy, if not guilt.
We see him shaking, trembling up there.
The most beautiful moving, most beautiful athlete in motion you've ever seen, and now he can't hold the torch, you know?
So we feel guilt and we feel sympathy.
We want to hug him.
We want to embrace him.
We want to ask his forgiveness, you know?
Everything, and for every reason that we disliked him, now we love him, you know, because he was right.
(crowd cheers) (slow guitar music) (flames crackle) - And it was striking to see this evolution, not in Ali, but in us.
(slow guitar music) Ah, it just struck me so amazingly to watch Ali, like, riding this torch.
(slow guitar music) People weeping.
(slow guitar music) It's amazing.
And you cast back not so many years before, and some huge amount of the country thought this guy was the Antichrist, or they chose to hate him, or they made him a foil to the other guy that they liked better.
And it's entirely possible that human beings are capable of learning something.
♪ I'll take the long road, yeah, yeah ♪ - [Narrator] The outpouring of love caught Ali by surprise.
"Parkinson's robs you of confidence," Lonnie told a reporter.
"Now he knows the public will love him and accept him, "no matter what he has."
(slow guitar music) - Wow.
Wow, wow, wow.
Janet, that was such an image of Ali for the ages.
- I, yes, and I was telling all of you a few minutes ago before we came on that I'm asked all the time about it.
So when someone to, this morning said to me, "It's been 25 years, does it feel like 25 years?"
My answer was "No," because I am blessed with the opportunity to be able to tell this side of my story where I was present in that moment.
And, you know, on a personal note, for me, it transcended all of my Olympic moments.
You know, I was a three-time Olympian.
I represented our country like Ali at the Olympic Games, which is the penultimate athletic experience.
And, you know, I tell people, I'd give up every single one of my medals to be present in that moment again.
And, you know, I was young when, I was born in 1971.
And so I wasn't witness to a lot, and I was very young.
So, for me, the phenomenon of Muhammad Ali really began in that moment for me.
I mean, of course I knew him and I knew who he was, but when I was standing there and he was lighting that cauldron, and he was standing there shaking with the torch, I felt like he was giving it to the world, right?
I mean, that was the emotion that was coming from him, was, this is yours, right?
I am here.
This is yours.
I am that person who is bringing you together once again, in happiness or not, but I am here in this moment, and it was courage and generosity, and to me, it was graciousness.
And, you know, I think athletes, in general, struggle with transition.
We struggle with not being the great swimmer for the rest of our lives or the great boxer, but what Ali did on that night was he gave all of us, myself included, this knowledge that you don't have to be able to get in a ring and box anymore.
You can, and be ill. You know, I lost my dad to ALS, so I'm very familiar with this disease.
And I, you could see him, you could see his mind working and trying to make his body with this torch light that flame.
And, you know, I think he said to the world, it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter if you're sick, it doesn't matter what your position in life is.
We are here to inspire, or we are here to stand for something, you know?
Here he was in the South, a Black man, right, and then being adulated.
And I think it's such a resonating moment within my world of the Olympic movement because it defined to many of us what the Olympic movement is, which is not medals.
It's not winning, and Ali certainly wouldn't have won a boxing match that evening, but he said to the world, you can still make an impact.
You can still make a difference.
It doesn't matter what your lot in life is, and I think that's why this message still resonates on a personal level.
It made me realize that my platform as an Olympian was an important platform, and the medals, yeah, they're wonderful, but my platform is to change lives for athletes and inspire and motivate them, and 100%, I give that to Ali for inspiring me to do that, even now, today.
- And in everything you just said, just, the moment becomes representative of this international Olympic ideal, right?
And Todd, so, in the film, you are so affected when you're talking about Ali and the ravages of what he was going through, and you talked about it being hard to watch.
What so moved you in this moment, and by extension, the millions of people watching around the world?
What were we all responding to?
- Well, I can speak to that at a personal level.
I think different people would have different responses, and I so appreciate the opportunity of hearing Janet Evans describe that experience from being there on the platform with him, which is, you know, such a unique experience, but I think different people reacted differently.
What you got from me in the film is something quite unusual, and that is a show of emotion.
You don't get to be "the Notorious PhD" by showing emotion, so this is rare, but it was genuine.
And, you know, when I think about that moment, even now, I mean, how many times have I seen that clip?
How many times have people asked me to comment on it in my career?
Like, I lost count, you know, 20 years ago.
This is something I've been asked to comment about a great deal.
Things, you know, I talk about it with friends of mine.
I mean, it's common in my life, and no matter when I see it, I have the same reaction to it.
Part of it is, you know, exhilarating, and another part of it is depressing, and I think it's the sort of clash of those things that made it so emotional.
You know, I don't have any children, but someone told me once that when babies cry, they're trying to express themself and they can't, and that's the only way that they can get across what it is they're trying to say.
And in that moment, I, you know, I'm a person who makes my living with words, and I had no words.
On one hand, you know, you're talking about the evidence of an American hero standing on a stage in front of the world in Atlanta, which is important for numerous reasons, one of which is the place that he began his comeback after being in exile, so there's that piece of it, but the idea of a Black man as an American hero.
And I think what's unique about Ali is, this is a Black man who, back in the 1960s and '70s, consciously went against the establishment.
He went against the grain.
He was not, you know, Jesse Owens in 1936 at the Olympics.
He was not Joe Louis in the late 1930s against Max Schmeling, doing something that Americans across the board could embrace and celebrate and hold up as emblematic of the nation, in spite of what these individuals experienced as Black people in America.
This was a Black person who went against the system in a very direct way, and here it is, all these years later, and he's standing on this stage and he's being embraced by the nation that he once had to defy.
And at the same time, he's someone with a debilitating illness that, if we're all able to live long lives, something is going to happen to us, and we're gonna experience aging and illness, and you don't see that every day.
Maybe you see it in your personal life with your family, but in terms of public figures, you know, Ronald Reagan spent the last years of his presidency and the last years of his life very ill. We didn't see that.
If we had seen it, it would affect how we see Ronald Reagan.
So here we were looking at Ali, celebrating him, but what we're looking at is not pleasant to the eye, and it's specifically because the profession he excelled in, boxing was one that the longer he did it, the more impact it took on his life physically.
So there's a part of me that looks at this and sees this American hero, this Black man who went against the system, being embraced.
And in a way, people are saying, "You were right all along," but then there's the other part of it of, you know, he kept boxing.
He took all these punches.
The second half of his career is really defined in terms of boxing by his ability to continually take a punch, but he took too many.
And so, you know, staying in the ring, his profession brought him to this point, and you're sitting there watching it, and that's not pleasant, but on the other hand, this is Ali.
As he says, "Keep the camera moving, "'cause I'm kinda fast."
He's not that fast.
He's shaking, he's trembling, but he's an American hero, and we saw it, and here we are 25 years later talking about it and, you know, looking at clips of a life well lived.
- So, Ken, kind of piggybacking on what Todd was saying, right, time is undefeated, and I am struck by the way his Olympic experience, which began, of course, with winning the gold medal in 1960, and ends with this torch lighting, and, so these served as a, the torch lighting serves as a bookend, and, to much of his time on the world stage.
So what were the universal themes that were contained within those bookends?
The humanity captured, going from the young, brash Olympic hopeful to the former champion, allowing us once again to see his true self?
What did that mean to you?
In what ways did, does that speak to you?
- This is a really excellent question, Lonnae, and I think Todd and Janet have spoken so eloquently.
I'd like to back up a little bit before the Rome Olympics of 1960 to say, there's something in this kid that we're seeing in the photographs.
There's something in this kid that we're seeing in the earliest of the footage and in the first talking stuff where he's chosen boxing accidentally, and he's, turns out to be really good at it.
But he also has, underlying that, a real sense of purpose in the life.
He's a kid born in Jim Crow America, a Black kid, and he's got something, a je ne sais quoi, that he is gonna go, whatever he's doing.
I mean, you know, I told somebody earlier today, could have been a simple carpenter, and we know a few simple carpenters who've gone as far as he did, you know?
And so, in a way, the Rome Olympics places him on a world stage that he never leaves, and it's really important that, from that moment, he begins to intersect with all the most important themes in American life.
And they have to do with race in America, because that's the central theme of us, both the US and the two-letter lowercase plural pronoun, but also about religion.
He chooses a separatist, separatist religious sect, a kinda hybrid of Islam that's not Islam.
It's kind of an American thing.
If PT Barnum was, you know, he might have invented something like that that also offered people, and Northern African Americans, a different kind of solution to the agrarian faith-based integrationists that Martin Luther King and the traditional civil rights offered.
So he's beginning to, as Todd said, he's going against every kind of grain.
At times, he is as threatening to a kind of middle-class Black American as he is terrifying to so many white Americans for the way he's standing up, for the way he's acting, for the way he's redefining, as we said in the intro, Black manhood, in a way that, a generation before, Jackie Robinson had.
This is a totally different person.
He's saying he's pretty.
He's saying he's the greatest.
He's saying he's, nobody can beat him.
It is unheard of, and it is dissonant and jarring.
It's hard to forget.
There wasn't just this beautiful insouciance about him.
It was threatening, and so he's intersecting with all of these things.
He's intersecting with politics.
He's opposed to the Vietnam War.
He's making a principled stand, and willing, as he said, as a young 20 year old, to risk a firing squad to uphold his beliefs.
And so, you've got the entire country roiled up over him.
He's changed his name.
He's no longer the name of a celebrated abolitionist, but he's taken the, a Muslim name, and nobody wants to respect that, and so he's struggling with that.
He's struggling against the United States government.
He's struggling against his suspension and the three and a half years.
The year that Janet was born, he fights Joe Frazier for the first time after a three-and-a-half-year absence, and he's full of all the braggadocio.
He tear, he's horrible to Joe Frazier, and Joe Frazier beats him.
And in the press conference afterwards, is he down?
Is he embarrassed?
Does he shirk this?
No, he says, you know, "There's gonna be defeat in every life."
And he realizes he's been a symbol for an awfully long time to the entire world, and he's gonna say, "I need to serve an as example."
It's one of the most heroic thing.
I know that Todd knows his speech really well.
It's unbelievable when he is, you know, acquitted by the Supreme Court, exonerates him, and he no longer has to go to jail.
They say, "Do you have faith in the justice system?"
And he goes, "Well, I don't know who's gonna be killed "or who, what cop's gonna beat somebody up."
You know, he doesn't say it, but who's the next Breonna Taylor?
Who's the next George Floyd?
Who's the next Trayvon Martin?
He's there with everybody in the world who have ever felt oppressed.
And so, he spends his life essentially intersecting with all the major themes of the last half of the 20th century.
And lo and behold, as we work with our heads, nose to the grindstone on this project, we lift up after seven years and see, oh my goodness, he's talking about today, as well.
And then you realize why tonight, as well, we are talking about this event.
An athlete imprisoned by this disease, and yet, liberated by it at the same time, who has gone on to yet another kinda thing.
The last film I made was on the writer Ernest Hemingway.
That didn't end too well.
This guy, beset by this disease, dies the most popular person, the most beloved person on the planet.
I'm really interested in who that is.
- The most beloved person on the planet.
Yet, we all personalize him, right?
Like, he's ours.
We heard it from each of you, and Janet, just to sort of close out that look, at eye level, what did you see that the rest of the world didn't see, and what were you taking from, in that moment, right, that we all weren't privy to?
- I saw confidence.
I saw just a tiny bit of nervousness and fear, but I saw, you know, kind of that athlete look of, I'm gonna get this done, and what Billy Payne told me prior to, one of the reasons I didn't unlight my torch was because there was a fear that he would drop it.
And if he had dropped the flame, it would have unignited, and it's not what you do on the way to the torch, is, you know, the torch goes from Olympia all the way to the host country.
And I could see in his eyes, 'cause I was so nervous he was gonna drop it, 'cause I didn't want to have to help him, right?
(chuckles) And I could see it.
It's not gonna happen.
I'm not gonna drop this.
I am gonna do this.
And there was this, this confidence and this pride and this, like, determination, and I knew it, right?
It was just, like, you got this, right?
Like, and, you know, he wasn't speaking at the time because of his illness.
And if he could have, I would never have heard him anyway because that stadium was, you know, his daughter talking about the airports and the roar of the crowd.
Like, I could still feel it in my, I think anyone who was in that stadium that evening can still feel it.
But I couldn't have heard him if he had tried to talk, but I knew with this, when I looked in his eyes, I knew it was gonna be fine.
- And all of us going along with it would be fine.
We have some audience questions, although I have to sort of see where they are.
I'm wondering if we can maybe save those and Ken, get you to tell us about this next clip.
- [Ken] Sure.
- To set up, it's Ali in Africa in 1964.
It comes before the legendary international fights, the Rumble In the Jungle and in Zaire, the Thrilla in Manila, and they helped mark the Ali legend, but in what ways does this highlight his time on the world stage?
- This is a really, really important moment.
Our first episode takes us up to his winning the heavyweight championship by defeating, and probably, with no one confident that he would win, against Sonny Liston in Miami in '64.
And later that year, he, and it allows him, it liberates him, at least in his mind and in the mind of others, to be able to express this developing Muslim faith and the fact that he has become, rather quietly and surreptitiously, a member of the Nation of Islam, and become under the sway of not only its leader, Elijah Muhammad, but also one of the great preachers, at least for a time, of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and they've developed a very intense friendship between the two.
Kind of mentor, but also friendship.
Ali supports Malcolm X and his family, but there's been some disagreements, and Malcolm X has been expelled.
But after he beats Liston, he goes out into a world tour, and he goes to Africa, and you begin to see the fact that, unlike almost all other athletes, they have, he has felt that the stage that he so has wanted since a little boy banging pots and pans in his kitchen is not limited to Louisville, Grand Avenue on Louisville.
It's not limited to Louisville, Kentucky.
It's not limited to the United States.
He's had that experience in Rome four years before.
It's the world, is his stage.
And so let's just look at this clip and come back and talk about it.
(slow guitar music) (crowd cheers) - [Narrator] In May, Ali began a monthlong tour of African countries.
In Accra, the capital of Ghana, thousands gathered at the airport to catch a glimpse of the world's new heavyweight champion.
(mellow African music) Outside his hotel, Ali heard a familiar voice.
"Brother Muhammad," called Malcolm X, who was on his own overseas tour.
He greeted Ali enthusiastically.
"I still love you," he told the boxer.
"You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad," Ali said.
"That was the wrong thing to do."
There was little else to say.
Malcolm walked away.
(upbeat trumpet music) Ali met with Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, sparred with his brother, Rudy, now known as Rahman, before thousands at a local sports stadium, and took every opportunity to engage the admirers who turned up everywhere Ali went.
(upbeat trumpet music) He also spoke out against integration in America, advocating for a separate state for Black people, and dismissed the sweeping civil rights bill under consideration in the US Congress as counterfeit money.
(mellow African music) Later, he visited Nigeria and Egypt, where he and Herbert Muhammad met with President Gamal Abdel Nasser and prayed with 1,500 worshipers at Cairo's Al-Hussain Mosque.
(upbeat trumpet music) The deep affection Africans showered on Ali during his five-week trip showed that his success in the ring and outspokenness beyond it had won him an enormous following well beyond the United States.
- Well, remember that the African continent, itself, was in the throes of liberation, you know, from colonial status to its liberation time, and Muhammad Ali was a figure of liberation.
(mellow African music) - [Narrator] Before leaving Africa, Ali received a cable from his former friend and mentor.
"Because a billion of our people in Africa, "Asia, and Arabia love you blindly, "you must now be forever aware of "your tremendous responsibility to them," Malcolm X wrote.
"You must never do or say anything "that will permit your enemies to distort "the beautiful image you have here among our people."
- I, frankly, believe that Cassius is in a better position than anyone else to restore the, a sense of racial pride to not only our people in this country, but all over the world, and he is trying his best to live a clean life, and project a clean image.
But despite this, you find the press is constantly trying to paint him as something other than what he actually is.
He doesn't smoke.
He doesn't drink.
In fact, if he was white, they would be referring to him as the all-American boy.
I could just keep watching this forever.
In fact, Ken, I did.
I went through the entire documentary series twice.
- [Ken] Oh.
- So many parables.
- You see the great discipline there in Malcolm X.
Later on in his life, just after the first scene that we showed of the lighting of the torch, he is trying to take stock of his life and trying to understand where he's gone wrong.
He's said, "I fit my religion to fit my life," and was extraordinarily remorseful for the unfaithfulness that he had exhibited towards the, at least three of his wives.
And he also regretted some of the things he'd said, too, about Joe Frazier, and he also felt that he had abandoned Malcolm.
And I think Malcolm's great gift here is that he is so open and forgiving.
He, Malcolm, himself, has had this transformation away from a kind of didactic and rigid form that Elijah Muhammad practiced to something that was much more embracing and ecumenical, and it's a place that Muhammad Ali is going to grow into, and it's only going to increase his ability to have this world stature.
Because he's been so brash, because he's said, "I am the greatest," because he's said things that Black men are not supposed to say, he is known throughout the world already.
He's, one, the champion.
That makes him known, but he's beloved because of the way he has championed everyone else who's ever felt the boot of the man.
And it is an amazing thing that happens in this very first international trip, that you can't do it, and he is going to be pulled now in death towards what Malcolm X had found at the end of his life.
And, in fact, when Elijah Mohammad dies, his son Wallace begins to embrace a much more open and forgiving and tolerant version of Islam, more mainstream Islam, than the kind of rigid thing of the Nation of Islam, and that's the Muhammad Ali at the end of his life.
So what you're seeing at the beginning, and in that extraordinary forbearance on the part of the rejected Malcolm X, who does not have long to live, and is gonna be murdered by the Nation of Islam, let me just say that, is the arc of the life that's going to take him to the kind of sainthood that we celebrate tonight.
His message, it's a four-letter word that the FCC lets us speak about, but we all have a hard time talking about, which is love, and that's Muhammad Ali.
- It's the arc and it's the evolution, and Todd, in that clip, right, we're seeing the antecedents, the beginning, you know, him being beloved on the world stage, as Ken was just talking about, and as we're, as I said, starting to see, but how does he go on to become such a liberation figure in Africa, so much so that during a time rife with proxy wars, right, that Ali becomes his own, his fights become their own kind of proxy war for liberation, for race and religious pride and freedom.
And when you're watching it now, even for control of the Black body, right, what Black people can do and say and think, what is he standing in for at these various inflection points that so enrage and inspire people so much that they're pouring so much into him?
- I think (clears throat) several of the things that Ken mentioned are, you know, relevant here, in terms of making that connection from, you know, national to global.
And I think, you know, to begin, the importance of Malcolm X, the connection between Malcolm and Cassius Clay at the time, I am reminded of a famous speech Malcolm gave (clears throat) in my hometown of Detroit in 1963 called the "Message to the Grass Roots," and in the "Message to the Grass Roots," Malcolm talks about a conference.
It took place in Bandung, Indonesia, back in the 1950s, that brought together African nations and Asian nations and South Asian nations and Latin American nations.
What we might now refer to as people of color, but people of color from all over the world.
And in speaking of this, what Malcolm was talking about was the importance of Black people in America seeing themself beyond just America.
And, of course, if you are familiar with "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," Malcolm's history, he, you know, talks about the experience he has when he goes to travel through the Middle East and various other places, Africa, as, you know, indicated in this clip, when he kinda randomly runs into Ali at this moment when there's conflict with the Nation of Islam.
But I think what's important, in addition to talking about, you know, African nations', you know, liberation, anti-colonialism, you know, the "Third World" phrase we don't use so much anymore, you end up in, you know, Vietnam, and the Vietnam War, which, of course, Ali is very central in being, early on, and saying, "I'm not gonna participate."
But also, when you get into the 1970s and you're staging fights in Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, or you're staging fights in, you know, Manila, the Thrilla in Manila, I mean, to me, that's what makes Ali, one of the things, there's so many, that makes him so important is, he was always global.
He always represented the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the colonized, the former slaves, the little man, the people.
He was the people's champ, right?
The people's choice.
This was something he embodied.
It was not just something he was called.
You know, all sorts of personal anecdotes about individual people who ran into Ali on the street.
You know, for a time, he lived here in Los Angeles, in the early 1980s, and I've talked to numerous people who ran into him, you know, buying ice cream for his kids.
And, you know, for somebody like Ali, there's a person coming up to him every five seconds wanting an autograph, wanting a photo.
You know, this is the life of a celebrity, and he's the biggest of celebrities, and people are telling stories about, it made no difference how many people were waiting to talk to him, how many pictures he'd taken.
It didn't matter.
He loved being around people, and it's that energy that is pouring out of him that makes him, you know, someone that people across the globe can embrace.
And so, I think there's this global dimension to him that started, perhaps, back in the Olympics in 1960.
But, you know, it's very important that he see himself as a Black man, but not simply an American Black man, but a Black man on the global stage.
And I think in the same way that, you know, say, jazz musicians before him had traveled to places throughout the globe and represented Black people from America, he kinda embodies that, as well.
But when you look at his career, when you look at his, you know, personality, when you look at the circumstances around it, I mean, you know, going to Zaire and fighting George Foreman in 1974, fighting Foreman and you have Mobutu Sese Seko, Ken deals with all this in the documentary, the history of what is Zaire but had previously been the Congo, the murdering of Patrice Lumumba, there's a whole series of historical events, and you can put Muhammad Ali right in the center of them.
Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and America's relationship to the Philippines, the Thrilla in Manila.
He was global.
He was iconic.
He was a representative of the Third World.
He was a representative of people of color.
He was an American.
He was all these things at once, and there's really not a lot of people in history you can say that about, and certainly not a lot of boxers, or certainly not a lot of athletes.
Just to kinda tie this up, if you go back to 2016 at his funeral, and I covered the funeral for CBS that day, so I'm on the air live all day and I'm talking to George Foreman, and I'm talking to a series of people connected to him, and I just kept saying, "When I was growing up, "situations like this "were reserved for presidents or heads of state.
"Boxers, athletes, didn't get "these sorts of public send-offs."
And there's a reason he did.
A small part of it had to do with his abilities as a boxer.
- [Ken] Right.
- Much of it had to do with his identity as a global citizen who connected all of these forces at the same time.
- So, Janet, it's interesting because Ali was certainly all those things Todd just said he was, but he was also a winner, right?
He was gold medalist, three-time heavyweight champion.
You, yourself, won three gold medals, broke seven world records in three events during your swimming career.
What is it about winning that gives people this extra ability to reach people?
How does it change the proportions on the world stage, and engender a kind of responsibility that you've talked about feeling towards others, and that Ali certainly had?
- Well, it's tough to follow Dr. Boyd because that, I think that really summed it up for me, personally.
You know, like I said, when he was holding that torch, it was like he wanted the world, it was not his, it was for everyone, right?
And so I, it just, it summed it up so beautifully.
So, thank you, Doctor.
You know, I think, different than winning being important, I think, of course, Ali liked to win.
(chuckles) We all like to win.
We all want to win.
But, to me, when I speak about Ali, I think Ali was a champion, and I think there's a difference between winning and being a champion.
And so, I think a champion is someone who understands they're not gonna win.
And he didn't win everything, and that didn't matter to him because yes, it was great to win, and it was great to puff out your chest and receive that medal or that heavyweight belt, but it was bigger than winning for him, and I think that's what athletes learn, and are still learning from his story, is that winning was a catalyst for him to be on the world stage and, but it was his message, it was his journey, it was his platform, and that evening in Atlanta, I think when you look at all of the athletes that were competing from the world that Dr. Boyd is speaking about, right, there, the Olympics, there's no more international sporting event than the Olympic Games, right?
So you have all these people from all over the world.
You know, 10% of the athletes that participate in the Olympic Games win a medal.
He wasn't speaking to that 10% that night.
He was speaking to the 90% that don't go home with a medal, and he was saying to them, "It's okay."
Show up, be present, find your voice, tell your story, make a difference, right?
And so the winning, to me, he was a champion.
Yeah, he won.
He has a lot of medals at home and a lot of belts, but it was transcending winning that really, I think, for me, personally, helped me realize that it's great to win, but there's more to it, and that's my vision of Ali with his athleticism and his journey as an athlete.
And as Dr. Boyd said, he's, I mean, clearly, so, so much more.
- And poured so much more into that.
We're gonna to get to the audience questions, because, obviously, they're very curious.
So Lloyd from the audience asks Ken, "Ken, did you ever feel nervous doing this film?
"He's the most beloved person on the planet?
"How did you handle that "without giving into the reverence that Ali inspires?"
And I'll add to that, and get your arm around just the bigness of his life?
- Yeah, I think that we've tried to spend most of, you know, our lives, by the whole team sort of biting off more than we can chew and learning how to chew it.
The biggest thing is fear, because when you're taking on, say, all of the Civil War, or all of baseball, or someone like Muhammad Ali, and I have to agree with Todd that the jazz analogy is really great, 'cause there's really only one other person on the planet that's at all like Muhammad Ali, and that's Louis Armstrong.
And he just, he revolutionized music the way Ali revolutionized his particular profession, and he had a capacious heart, and was, in turn, loved across the globe in a way that was part of that subtle message of liberation that comes along with the thrill of celebrity and things like that.
You know, we put our pants on one leg at a time.
We spend years doing it.
We collect as many photographs and as much footage as we can.
We talk to as many people who are smart, and one of them is here.
We talk to family, two of his four wives, two of his children, a lot of journalists, like Dave Kindred, who you saw, who covered him from the beginning to the end.
Also, Robert Lipsyte.
People who've written about him, like David Remnick, the poet Wole Soyinka, who's written one of the most beautiful poems that frames our last episode about Ali, having seen him in a kind of desultory moment at a kind of autograph thing that was not the Olympics.
It was not the kind of moment that Janet had that privilege of being there, where all the love of the world was pouring in and all of his love was pouring out.
You know, it was just some thing, and he wrote this extraordinary poem that exemplifies all of the reasons why we're talking to him.
I mean, a lot of our sports heroes aren't really heroes, in that regard.
They're really good at what they do, winning, and even being champions, and I'm glad that Janet made that distinction, but they're not risking everything.
He risked everything.
At the height of his professional career, he said, "No, I'm just not gonna do it."
And he knew he'd get a cushy USO job, he'd go and do a few exhibition sparring matches, and yet, he said, "No, I'm not gonna do that."
Three and a half years later, he can come back, and he can't beat the champion Joe Frazier the first time, the first time, but he keeps at it.
So it's just going in and understanding that we're not looking for hagiography hero worship.
We're not looking for some kind of simplistic revisionism.
We're looking to see a complicated human being, and saying the word "complicated human being" is redundant.
So we're looking for that undertow, the contradictions that are inherent in each and every one of us.
And the reason why we have mythic figures, iconic heroes, the hero's journey that Muhammad Ali takes, is because all of their tensions, all of the contradictions within them, are writ so large that they might be, just, perhaps, if we're aware, a little bit helpful for the rest of us, in which we play out those contradictions in a much more cramped and narrow space.
And to me, he's about how you wake up.
You know, Janet, you spoke so, that was so beautiful about being there and understanding what he understood, and that silent thing.
I met him, Todd, in LA once.
Never said a word to him, in a coffee shop.
You know, I'd gone in to get some tea, turned around, and he was the only person in a diner or, you know, coffee shop or whatever, and we just had this wordless conversation.
It was just extraordinary to be in his presence.
It was like, as Remnick said, it was like the Buddha.
You know, and I didn't need anything to do but just be as present as I could possibly do.
And that, no pun intended, is the greatest present he gave us.
Boxing, as Rasheda, his daughter, says, this much, right?
The rest is this extraordinary heart that just continued to grow and grow and grow.
- And Todd, a final question from the audience, and I'm gonna take a moderator's privilege to kind of add onto it, because Ken just talked about contradictions.
I want to talk about contradictions and evolutions.
First of all, as this liberation figure and being celebrated in Africa, I was struck by how a lot of the people, the multitudes coming out to see him, were phenotypically closer to a Joe Frazier, right?
And so, we have to hold that intention, in terms of this liberation figure also espousing and talking in these very ugly ways, and Todd Stevens asks you, "Tell us about the cultural impact "of Ali beating Superman to a pulp "in the 40-year-old DC Comic book, "'Superman vs. Muhammad Ali,' that's a collector's item," and that certainly represents an evolution, right?
I mean, a collector's item, him beating, you know, American Superman.
So, Todd, explain to me both of those things, these notions of contradictions, evolutions, when it comes to Muhammad Ali.
- Well, I think, you know, when Ken said, "a complicated human being "is a contradiction in terms," that's so true.
(chuckles) I mean, you know, human being, that assumes, we're all very complicated, but you need to say complicated, because people don't always make that connection.
But I think that's a perfect way of describing it.
You know, Ali is a human being.
He was not a cartoon character.
He was not a character that a screenwriter wrote to put in a movie.
He was a person.
And, you know, I mean, we talked earlier about a human being dealing with illness, right?
To see him with Janet Evans on that stage, we saw humanity.
- [Ken] Right.
- Not always pretty, right?
Whole lot easier to see him, you know, bouncing around the ring after he beat Sonny Liston.
That's a lot more uplifting than to see him standing there shaking, right?
But that's real.
On the same token, you look at this scenario, particularly involving Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and I want to go back to the point Janet Evans was making about, you know, winning, being a champion, distinctions.
Arguably, one of Ali's greatest fights is a fight he lost, and that is that fight in the year Janet Evans was born.
I was a young kid, but in a lot of ways, 1971, for me, is the beginning of the universe, because it's my discovery of Muhammad Ali and the lead-up to the fight.
I just keep seeing this guy on television and he's jumping out of the television for me, this seven-year-old kid, and I remember my parents were, like, going to watch the fight on closed-circuit.
They got dressed up and it was a big deal, and they came back that night and I wanted to know who won.
I was up way later than I should have been.
They told me Ali lost and it broke my heart.
How could he, how could this guy lose?
I'm seven years old.
I didn't know very much about boxing, Joe Frazier.
I didn't know much about anything.
I'm a seven-year-old kid who's been captivated by this man's persona.
"No, he did not lose.
"Don't tell me that.
"That's not possible," right?
But you're in that moment.
Later, many years later, I'm talking to my father, who introduced me to all this, and we're talking about the Frazier fight, and my father says to me, "You know, I really didn't like "the way Ali went after Joe Frazier."
He goes, "I understood he was promoting the fight "and he wanted to sell it.
"But the things he was saying about Frazier, "you know, if you're in a barbershop "and two guys are having an argument "and they say those things, "maybe it's funny, "maybe you laugh.
"The public didn't need to hear that."
Ali went after Joe Frazier in a particularly racialized way.
He talked about his features, his physical features, you know, which you referred to, Lonnae.
He talked about his physical features.
He called him dumb.
He talked about him, I think I say this in the film, he talked about him the way racist white people would talk about Black people.
But this is Muhammad Ali.
This is not a racist white person saying it.
So, in some ways it almost gives people license to say the kinda things he's saying because he's saying it, and he's so charismatic.
Something you notice, though, when you watch this film, and I've had the privilege of watching it multiple times, there's a different Ali in the lead-up to the fight than there is after the fight.
Before every fight, he's gonna sell the fight.
He was strongly influenced by wrestling, particularly a wrestler known as Gorgeous George.
He said he recognized how Gorgeous George could become this kinda hated figure, and people would pay money to come and see him lose.
He put his own twist on that.
But if you watch Muhammad Ali after a fight, he's one of the most humble people in the world, I don't care who he's fighting.
The contrast is amazing, and you can see this throughout the documentary.
Before the fight, he's gonna use all sorts of slurs and criticisms and everything he can to get under his opponent's skin, and after the fight, we're not promoting it anymore.
He's gonna show the humanity.
So I think what we have to look at is the fact that Ali, and Ken mentioned this earlier, later in his life, said he had two prominent regrets: his relationship with Malcolm X, and the way in which he talked about Joe Frazier.
The problem is, Joe Frazier, great boxer, and if we're just talking about boxing, one of the great heavyweights.
Joe Frazier was not well spoken.
He was not charismatic.
He was not Ali.
I mean, that's an understatement.
Who is, right?
I felt like Ali took advantage of Joe Frazier, and he took advantage of the fact that he couldn't keep up with him in that way.
But Joe Frazier certainly couldn't do it.
George Foreman, in 1974, is a somewhat less sympathetic character, to me, than Joe Frazier was in 1971.
But what you have is a figure in Ali who is very popular, very charismatic, and there are moments when he uses his powers for evil as opposed to using his powers for good.
That is probably something that can, at some level, be said about all of us.
- [Ken] Right.
That's the humanity of it.
So when you look at him, it's not about, you know, celebrating a saint.
It's about celebrating a really compelling human being, warts and all.
And so, you can't just talk about winning boxing matches, or the rhymes, or how charismatic he was.
You also have to talk about the fact that this was a human being, and like all human beings, there are things he did that, perhaps given the opportunity, he wouldn't do a second time.
- Well said.
- And because this is the 25th anniversary of the torch lighting, I would be remiss, we gotta close out, but Janet, I have a question, and Richard from the audience echoes that question.
When did you find out that you were going to hand the torch to Muhammad Ali, and what was, like, what was your self-talk?
(chuckles) (mumbles) What's happening?
(chuckles) - (chuckles) I found out the night before at midnight, during our rehearsal, and Ali had rehearsed prior to me, so I only found out, as mentioned, because he had continued to drop it, and Billy Payne had said to me, "This is the plan if he drops it," right?
"Otherwise, we're not gonna tell you."
And I was swimmer, all right?
I can't run.
I'm just like, "Wait, I have to run "all the way around his track, "up these three long ramps, "and Muhammad Ali's gonna be waiting for me?"
(chuckles) Like, so my self-talk wasn't very good, right?
It was very, I was very, clearly very worried, but I will tell you, when I got up there and I saw him, I knew it was gonna be okay.
It just, was just, it was, I just knew it was gonna be okay.
And it was, so- - It certainly was, and he just gave you that strength.
I just want to thank you.
It's so funny, I feel like we've barely scratched the surface, and we've been here- - We've barely scratched the surface.
- There's everything to say about him centering Africa, about the ways that he still continues to unfold on the world stage.
I'll hang around.
Out of all of you, I probably have the least to do right now, you know.
I'm sorta good, but I do want to go ahead and wrap up, and thank the audience at home for joining us.
Thank you, Todd.
Thank you, Janet.
And congratulations, again, Ken, and thank you for such a singular look at this, at the life of Muhammad Ali.
- Well, you know, the other anniversary, it's 25 years since the lighting of the torch, and when we started, it was almost exactly.
It is now almost exactly two months from now, 8:00 Eastern time on September 19th, that PBS will begin broadcasting this series, and it'll be available for streaming, but it'll run the next four nights, if you're still wedded to broadcast television, and available for streaming exactly two months from now.
And so, I really hope that, because it's impossible to scratch the surface, nor did we, in eight hours, that we hope that you'll all join us and watch it, and see Todd in all his magnificence, and Muhammad Ali, and see you, too, Janet, running up, expertly, those ramps, and to begin to dive deeper into this most interesting of complicated, redundant human being.
- And, before that, let me just say, please be on the lookout for two more installments in our "Conversations" series.
We've got "Ali, Race & Religion," September 9, and "Ali, Activism & the Modern Athlete" on September 14.
So lots of other ways to continue to get into the Ali story.
Please sign up for those events at pbs.org/alievents.
And, as Ken said, please do tune in to "Muhammad Ali," a film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon that we're so grateful they did, and premiering, again, September 19 on PBS.
Thank you all.
- Thank you, Lonnae.
Thank you, Janet, Todd.