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SAD FINAL CHAPTER FOR A GREAT ACTION HERO

Bernard Fernandez

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Some call boxing the “the sweet science,” which conjures images of intricate strategies and balletic movements more reminiscent of a Nuryev or a Baryshnikov than of tough guys punching for pay. And make no mistake, there are fighters whose grace and fluidity of movement hinted at or even screamed that they were actual scientists of pugilism: Willie Pep, Miguel Canto and any number of other stylistic dandies weren’t exactly nerds, but they executed a more physical version of the Big Bang Theory. Imagine, if you can, Dr. Sheldon Cooper with nimble feet, quick reflexes and a snappy jab.

There are those, however, whose claim to fame owed more to indomitable will than to extraordinary skill, to power more than prettiness. The blunt-force trauma guys come forward relentlessly, taking punishment to dish out punishment, their most memorable bouts recalled as bloody wars of attrition that bespeak the beauty that can be found even in the fiercest, most primeval of boxing battles.

Former WBC light heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad was such an acclaimed warrior, wearing down opponents in two-way action classics that left a deep impression on anyone who saw him dig inside himself to find, time and again, some last ounce of courage which marked the difference between victory and defeat.

Now Saad Muhammad, 59, is gone, having succumbed to the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Saad passed away early Sunday morning in the Intensive Care Unit of Chestnut Hill Hospital, in his hometown of Philadelphia.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

“He had been battling the illiness for the last couple of years, but then he took a turn for the worse,” said a longtime friend and associate, Mustafa Ameen. “Those of us who knew him will miss him. He was a good man. Sure, he had his ups and downs – a lot of ups, and a lot of downs. But at least now he isn’t suffering any more. Hopefully, he’s in a better place, and I’d like to think that he is.”

Saad Muhammad was a first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998, which tells the story of who and what he was more than his final won-lost record, which is a deceiving 49-16-3, with 35 knockouts. But, like many fighters who hang around too long, he was just 5-7-1 in his final 13 bouts, with four of his eight losses inside the distance coming during that span. He was by then a shell of his former greatness, and he knew it. But what’s a used-up fighter to do when he has made too many wrong choices, financial and otherwise, and has no way to earn a living but to keep putting himself in harm’s way?

“Toward the end I started losing my power,” Saad recalled in 1998, a few days before he was inducted into the IBHOF. “You can’t fight the way I did unless you got something to back it up. I couldn’t back it up any more. But you know what? I have no regrets. I was like Frank Sinatra. I did it my way.”

Well, maybe he did, at least professionally. As far as the rest of it … well, that’s another matter. Saad – abandoned as a child, homeless as a toddler and later as an adult, his $4 million fortune eroded to nothing by a profligate lifestyle and leeching entourage – surely would have done some things differently if life had afforded him a couple of discretionary do-overs.

“I was in a state of shock,” he said of the gut-wrenching decision he made in the summer of 2010 to walk into the RHD Ridge Center, Philadelphia’s largest homeless shelter. “I thought to myself, `Am I really going to go into this shelter?’ But I had to go somewhere. My money had run out. I was going hotel to hotel, bills piling up. I went into the shelter because I hoped it could help me make a change.”

It is hardly a unique situation, boxing history liberally dotted with sad stories of the rapid descent of good and even great fighters who treated their ring earnings as they were a permanently sustainable asset, like a backyard fruit tree that periodically renews its natural bounty.

By today’s exorbitant standards, Saad’s estimated $4 million fortune was more of a nice-sized molehill than a mountain. Floyd Mayweather Jr. has made 10 times that amount for a single bout. But it was significant swag for the 1970s and ’80s, and Saad admitted to living large – too large. He had a Rolls-Royce, a mink coat and a swarm of hangers-on he estimates at up to 60 people.

“I was putting my people up in hotels, buying them cars,” he said. “I would be nice to other people, help other people out, give to other people. Never once did I think, `Who’s going to take care of me when I’m broke?’ Stupid me.”

Perhaps Saad – his birth name was Maxwell Antonio Loach, although he didn’t rediscover that until he was an adult, and he won his 175-pound title when he was still known as Matthew Franklin, before his conversion to Islam – would have made more prudent choices had he not endured a childhood as harrowing as anything to be found in the pages of “Oliver Twist.” Even though boxing gave him a sense of purpose, he wandered through a lost-and-found life, seemingly a perpetual victim of circumstance.

Saad was introduced to hardship at an early age. Living with an aunt after his mother died, his childhood could have come out of a Charles Dickens novel. He was five years old, he said, the day his aunt told him to go out for a walk with an older brother, who was nearly eight.

“They just didn’t have enough money to take care of me, so they got rid of me,” Saad said. “I was so scared. Then a policeman found me at night and asked me my name. I said, `M-m-m-m-m.’ I was so scared. I was stuttering.”

The frightened child was taken to Catholic Social Services, where the nuns named him Matthew Franklin, after the saint and the thoroughfare (the Benjamin Franklin Parkway) where he had been abandoned.

“When people ask me to describe the greatest triumph of my career,” he said in 1998, “I tell them it was just surviving what I went through as a kid.”

Having been found, Matthew Franklin soon found ways to become lost again. He got into trouble early and often, some of the arguments ending in fistfights, a means of expression at which he proved to be quite adept. He was sent to reform school, where one of his teachers, whom he knew as “Mr. Carlos,” suggested he channel his pent-up rage into something useful, like boxing.

After compiling a 25-4 record as an amateur, Matt Franklin – his man-strength enhanced through work as a longshoreman before he turned pro in early 1974 – began his pro career in search of a signature style that fit both his temperament and gift for hitting hard. Following a 10-round unanimous-decision loss to Eddie Gregory (now Eddie Mustafa Muhammad) on March 11, 1977, Franklin decided that his most productive course of action was to ditch any notions of stick-and-move. He would stand and slug, and may he who came equipped with more concussive power and a higher threshold of pain have his hand raised at the end.

There have been more gifted fighters, to be sure, but by either of his professional names, Matthew Franklin or Matthew Saad Muhammad, the man would have to rank at or near the top of any list of crowd-pleasing favorites. He was at once an updated Jake La Motta and a precursor to Arturo Gatti. Anyone who purchased a ticket for one of Saad’s fights was sure to gets lots of bang for his buck. He won his 175-pound title on an eighth-round stoppage of Marvin Johnson on April 22, 1979, in Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, a virtual replay of his even-more-rousing 12th-round TKO victory over Johnson on July 26, 1977,” in Philly. But if the Johnson bouts represented Saad at his blood-and-guts best, there were other fights that rose to nearly that level, such as his 14th-round TKO of Yaqui Lopez and his fourth-round TKO of John Conteh in their second matchup.

“I was in a lot of wars,” Saad conceded in 1998. “People would see me get hit and not know how I could take the kind of shots that I took. Sometimes I don’t even know how I did it myself. It’s like God told me to get off that canvas and keep going.

“The (first) fight with Marvin Johnson had to be the fight of the century. It was like rock ’em, sock ’em robots all the way. Same thing with my fight with Yaqui Lopez and the second fight with John Conteh. It was fights like that that made me who I am.”

Lou Duva, the legendary manager and trainer who also was inducted into the IBHOF in 1998, said Saad’s constantly attacking, never-say-die approach would have made him a difficult opponent for anyone, including the best light heavyweight in the world at that time, Roy Jones Jr.

“Saad Muhammad was an outstanding fighter,” Duva said. “He’s the one guy who I think, if he were around today, could beat Jones. His style would just wear you down. It wore down a lot of good fighters, and I think it would wear Jones down.”

Told what Duva had said, Saad agreed with his assessment. “I think he’s right,” Saad said. “When I was at my best, I think I would have had a chance to beat any light heavyweight because of the way I fought. I got in trouble sometimes, but I always came right back at you.”

Not surprisingly, Saad sought to fill in the blank spaces in his life story with as much determination as he always exhibited inside the ropes. Who was he, really? Why had he been cast aside at such a young age? So he offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could offer information as the identities of those who had deemed him expendable.

Perhaps also not surprisingly, stepping forward to put in a claim to the reward money were the aunt who had abandoned him and the older brother who had left alone on the street, crying and frightened.

It might be argued that Saad’s plunge from wealthy champion to destitution (at one point he was unemployed and owed $250,000 to the IRS in back taxes), while self-inflicted, was a desperate bid to buy a form of love to replace the family he didn’t have in his formative years, and didn’t want him even when he was around.  It is a reasonable theory, although he exacerbated that situation by botching his later attempts at being a reasonably good husband and father. He was married and divorced twice, and his relationship with his children has also at times been rocky.

Speaking of rocky, Saad was up for the role of Clubber Lang in “Rocky III,” but lost out to a scowling bouncer from Chicago named Lawrence Tero – you now know him as Mr. T – because his vanity would not allow him to shave his head (Saad’s version) or because he objected to the script calling for him to lose the climactic fight to star Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa character (Ameen’s version). So Saad was obliged to sit back and watch as Mr. T became an instantly recognizable figure on the big and little screens.

Nor did a proposed film of Saad’s seemingly Hollywood-friendly tale ever gain traction beyond the discussion stage. Polly Wilkinson, who was for a time Saad’s business manager, kept pitching his story to the studios, but it never found a buyer. Thus was Saad reduced to working as an itinerant roofer, a sometimes trainer of fighters, and ultimately as a homeless person.

“Anyone can fall down,” he said of his difficult decision to admit he had hit bottom. “The important thing is whether you can get back up. You have to make commitments and do the right thing.”

If that sounds like a line from a “Rocky” movie, well, so be it. It wouldn’t be the first time life has imitated art. Or is that the other way around?

Rest in peace, Saad. You fought like a man possessed every time you stepped inside the ring, and the guess here is that you left this earth the same way.

 

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A Big Upset in London as Oleksandr Usyk Outclasses Anthony Joshua

Arne K. Lang

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Oleksandr Usyk gathered up all four meaningful cruiserweight belts before leaving the division. Tonight, on a special night at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, he acquired three of the four meaningful heavyweight belts to add to his rich collection. In a battle between former Olympic gold medalists, the 34-year-old Ukrainian cashed his ticket to the Hall of Fame (and on the first ballot) with a unanimous decision over Anthony Joshua. There were some strange scorecards turned in earlier in the evening so it was no sure thing that the judges would get it right, but they did. Usyk won by tallies of 117-112, 116-112, and 115-113.

There were no knockdowns but this was an entertaining fight with momentum shifts and the goosebumps that come whenever an underdog is acquitting himself well against a bigger man more capable of turning the tide with one punch.

Usyk, who improved to 19-0 (13) started strong. With his superior hand and foot speed, he actually looked a level above Joshua. But Usyk’s pace slowed in the fifth and Joshua started closing the gap. Usyk had a strong seventh round, but Joshua came back strong in the next stanza and it seemed as if he had more fuel in his tank and was capable of a Garrison finish. But no, Usyk closed strong and ended the match with a flourish.

Joshua, whose ledger declined to 24-2 (22), was expected to land the more damaging punches but it was Usyk, who suffered a cut around his right eye, whose punches were more damaging. At the end, Joshua’s right eye was swollen nearly shut.

Joshua’s defeat spoiled a lucrative match with his countryman Tyson Fury (assuming Fury gets past Deontay Wilder). That match will likely come to fruition someday, but it won’t be quite the mega-fight that it would have been under “normal” circumstances.

Co-Main

Lawrence Okolie drew a softie for the first defense of his WBO world cruiserweight title that he won with a smashing performance over Krzysztof Glowacki. In the opposite corner was Montenegro’s Dilan Prasovic who came in undefeated (15-0) but against suspect opposition and was out of his element. Okolie stopped him in the third round, improving his ledger to 17-0 (14 KOs).

A former McDonald’s burger-flipper who is co-managed by Anthony Joshua and trained by Shane McGuigan, Okolie decked Prasovic with a right hand in the second round and terminated the fight in the next frame with a body punch that didn’t appear to land especially hard. The official time was 1:57.

Standing 6’5 ½” with an 82 ½-inch reach, the ever-improving Okolie hopes to unify the division before moving up to heavyweight. He may out-grow the cruiserweight class before a unification fight presents itself.

Other Bouts

Liverpool’s Callum Smith, in his first fight as a light heavyweight and his first fight with Buddy McGirt in his corner, rolled back the clock to the days when he was running up a string of fast knockouts and sent Lenin Castillo to dreamland with a booming right hand in the second round. This was a scary knockout. Castillo’s leg twitched as he lay on the canvas. He was removed from the ring on a stretcher and taken to a hospital where, according to promoter Eddie Hearn, he was fully responsive.

Smith (28-1, 20 KOs) was making his first start since losing to Canelo Alvarez in a match in which he was reluctant to let his hands go. Castillo, from the Dominican Republic, had previously taken Dmitry Bivol the distance (albeit while losing virtually every round) in a bid for Bivol’s WBA 175-pound crown. He was 21-3-1 heading in and hadn’t previously been stopped.

Chicago middleweight Christopher Ousley (13-0, 9 KOs) stepped up in class and won a 10-round majority decision over former world title challenger Khasan Baysangurov (21-2). Baysangurov, a Ukrainian, did well in the late rounds but it was too little, too late. The judges had it 95-95 and 97-94 twice.

While Ousley, 30, didn’t look especially sharp, this was good win for him. He had been working with trainer Manny Robles and Anthony Joshua is one of his sponsors. Baysangurov had won four straight since suffering an 11th-round stoppage at the hands of Rob Brant.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Russian Lion, an Exemplary Judge and More

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Russian Lion, an Exemplary Judge and More

Arslanbek Makhmudov, says his promoter Camille Estephan, is the most feared heavyweight in the world. Makhmudov did nothing to discount that opinion last night (Friday, Sept. 23) in Quebec City where he needed only one round to dismiss Erkan Teper. That was his 13th knockout in as many pro starts. He’s answered the bell for only 22 rounds.

Makhmudov is ponderous as is to be expected for a boxer who stands 6’5 ½” and weighs 260, but what he lacks in foot speed he makes up in hand speed and he carries power in both of his hands. Teper came out intent on pressing the action, but Makhmudov quickly had him fighting off his back foot. Teper was on the canvas three times in all — the second knockdown could have been ruled a slip – and his corner threw in the towel as soon as the first round ended.

The outcome wasn’t totally unexpected although Teper, a 39-year-old German of Turkish descent, brought a 21-3 record and had gone 12 rounds on several occasions. In his previous match which was held at a Holiday Inn in Mexico, Makhmudov stopped Czechoslovakian slug Pavel Sour in 37 seconds.

Makhmudov’s nickname is “Lion.” He’s hardly the first Russian to be cloaked with this cognomen. The most celebrated of the Russian lions was George Hackenschmidt, a wrestler who rose to prominence in the first decade of the twentieth century. In those days, pro wrestling was legitimate, or at least quasi-legitimate, and the biggest matches attracted heavy betting.

At age 32, it’s past time for Makhmudov to ramp up his level of competition. He and his management say he’s ready to tackle any heavyweight in the world.

In the co-feature on the Quebec City show, Christian Mbilli stopped Ronny Landaeta in the third frame of a 10-round super middleweight match. Mbilli, born in Cameroon, represented France in the 2016 Olympics. Akin to Makhmudov, he came to Canada to launch his pro career.

Mbilli improved to 19-0 (18). He won a one-sided, 8-round decision over sturdy Mexican veteran Humberto Ochoa on the lone occasion when he was forced to go the distance. Landaeta, a 38-year-old Spaniard, brought an 18-3 record and hadn’t previously been stopped.

We would love to see Arslanbek Makhmudov fight the winner of the forthcoming battle between Efe Ajagba and Frank Sanchez and we would love to see Christian Mbilli in the ring with Edgar Berlanga. Of course, at the moment those are just fantasy fights not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever.

It’s old news now, but a boxing judge took to social media to apologize for a bad scorecard. Who ever heard of such a thing?

The fight in question was the WBC 130-pound title fight between Oscar Valdez and Robson Conceicao staged in Tucson on Sept. 10.

A common opinion expressed by those tuning in on TV was that Conceicao was entitled to a draw, notwithstanding the fact that he had a point deducted for hitting behind the head, a questionable call. But the judges disagreed. Two had it 115-112 for Valdez and the other favored Valdez by a 117-110 score.

The outlier was Stephen Blea, a veteran arbiter from Denver. After reviewing a tape of the fight, Blea decided that his unpopular 117-110 tally was too generous to the defending champion and felt compelled to offer an apology. “I have decided to reach out to my NABF/WBC ring officials committee to undergo a thorough training and review program and will not accept any championship assignments until I complete the process,” he wrote. “I am an honorable man with profound, love, knowledge and respect to the sport. I am sorry for having brought unnecessary controversy to such a sensational fight.”

Blea noted that he had judged over 200 fights and refereed over 500 with no controversy and that his assignments had taken him around the world. A theology major in college, Blea has been a long-time supporter of amateur boxing in Colorado and had served as the head boxing coach of the Denver Police Department.

Boxing writer Patrick L. Stumberg had this reaction to Blea’s letter of contrition: “We’ve seen tons of judges turn in inexplicably bad scorecards and just keep on trucking like nothing happened, so this is very refreshing.”

Indeed. The Boxing Writers Association of America has intermittently handed out an award for “Honesty and Integrity” at their annual banquet. Stephen Blea would seem to be a worthy nominee.

Heavyweight boxers just keep getting bigger. Top Rank’s newest signee, Antonio Mireles, stands six-foot-nine and weighs 265 pounds.

Mireles, 24, upset top-seeded Jeremiah Milton at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials (held in December of 2019 in St. Charles, Louisiana) but didn’t get the chance to compete in Tokyo. The super heavyweight slot went to Team USA veteran Richard Torrez Jr who went on to win a silver medal.

Mireles hails from Des Moines, Iowa, a state that has produced a slew of outstanding wrestlers over the years but very few professional boxers. Only one Iowa man has fought for the world heavyweight title and he didn’t fare very well. Ron Stander, the “Bluffs Butcher” from Council Bluffs was butchered by Smokin’ Joe Frazier in 1972. Stander was a bloody mess when the ring doctor waived the fight off after four rounds.

Antonio Mireles has been training at Robert Garcia’s boxing academy in Oxnard, CA. He is penciled in to make his pro debut on the Oct. 15 Top Rank show in San Diego anchored by Emanuel Navarette’s WBO world featherweight title defense against Joet Gonzalez.

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The Hauser Report: Ken Burns Explores Muhammad Ali

Thomas Hauser

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“I wanted to write about Muhammad Ali,” Wilfrid Sheed told me years ago when we were discussing the text that Sheed had written for an elaborate coffee-table book. “He’s one of those madonnas you want to paint at least once in your life.”

Ali is also a subject that filmmakers want to make documentaries about. More documentaries have been fashioned about Ali than any other athlete ever.

There was a time when Ali was the most famous, most recognizable, most loved person on the planet. He was an important social and political figure in addition to being a great fighter. One day after Cassius Clay (as he was then known) beat Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight crown, he met with reporters and told them, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be and think what I want to think.”

At a time when the heavyweight championship of the world was the most coveted title in sports, that lit a spark that grew into a raging fire. Commenting on the impact of Ali’s refusal to accept induction into the United States Army at the height of the war in Vietnam, Islamic scholar Sherman Jackson observed, “You can’t teach that kind of thing in lectures and books. That kind of thing has to be modeled.”

Now Ken Burns – one of America’s most honored filmmakers – has thrown his hat into the ring. Burns rose to prominence in 1990 when PBS aired his critically-acclaimed eleven-hour documentary on the Civil War. Since then, he has tackled subjects ranging from baseball, Mark Twain, and jazz to World War II, the war in Vietnam, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In 2005, he explored the life and times of Jack Johnson in a 3-1/2-hour documentary entitled Unforgivable Blackness. Now Burns has returned to the sweet science with Muhammad Ali – an eight-hour opus co-directed and written with Sarah Burns (his daughter), and David McMahon (her husband).

Muhammad Ali unfolds chronologically and is divided into four parts designated as “rounds” – a questionable designation since Ali was hardly a four-round fighter.

Round One: The Greatest (1942-1964) details Cassius Clay’s upbringing in Louisville through his first fight against Sonny Liston with considerable exposition of the Nation of Islam and the allure that it had for Clay.

Round Two: What’s My Name (1964-1970) covers Ali at his peak as a fighter [Liston II through Ali-Folley with Ali-Quarry I tacked on]. Also, Ali and the draft.

Round Three: The Rivalry (1970-1974) takes viewers from Ali-Bonavena, through Ali-Frazier I and II up to an introduction of Don King and the stirrings of Ali-Foreman.

Round Four: The Spell Remains (1974-2016) begins with “The Rumble in the Jungle” and lays out the remaining forty-two years of Ali’s life.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was one of several people asked by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2018 to review Burns’s proposal for the documentary and answer a series of questions keyed to whether or not CPB should fund it. Given the excellence of Burns’s work, I began my response with the thought, “It feels presumptuous to be critiquing a proposal by Ken Burns,” and added, “I have no doubt that Ken Burns will do a masterful job in the areas that he covers. His track record speaks for itself. Muhammad Ali is important. And Mr. Burns’s proposal, coupled with his reputation for excellence as a filmmaker, promise a comprehensive entertaining look at his subject.”

The finished documentary bears out that promise. It’s thorough and nicely put together. Burns lays out both the positive aspects and also the ugly underside of the Nation of Islam without sugarcoating the principles that Ali espoused at a time in his life when he adhered to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. The glorious and ultimately tragic arc of Ali’s ring career is well told. The cruelties that he visited on Joe Frazier outside the ring and Ali’s profligate womanizing are honestly addressed. The archival footage and still photos are excellent.

Keith David’s narration is smooth. Some of the talking heads are exceptionally good.

Former WBO heavyweight beltholder Michael Bentt is particularly insightful in describing Ali’s ring technique.

Professor and media commentator Todd Boyd is a welcome voice. Speaking about Ali’s taunting of Joe Frazier, Boyd declares, “Ali is making the sort of jokes that racist white people would make. I feel like, in that instance, he used his powers for evil as opposed to using them for good.”

Khalilah Ali (Muhammad’s second wife) and two of his daughters, Rasheda and Hana, provide valuable personal insights. Veronica Porche (Muhammad’s third wife) is a particularly welcome inclusion.

Journalist Salim Muwakkil makes a solid contribution. And Burns gives ample time to three wise men who covered Ali for much of his journey – journalists Robert Lipsyte, Jerry Izenberg, and Dave Kindred.

Kindred is the most lyrical of the three. Recalling Ali-Frazier III, he states, “They turned each other into monsters. That’s boxing at its cruelest. That’s what the game is. And they were at their best cruelest that night.” Later, commenting on Ali’s horribly debilitated physical condition, Kindred observes, “The game that we asked him to play to entertain us has left him looking like this.”

On the minus side, the documentary is too long. Its eight hours drag in places. Some of the material (e.g., the extensive film footage from Ali’s amateur career and some of his professional fights) could have been shortened with no loss in quality.

More significantly, Burns offers no new interpretations of Ali.

In responding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting questionnaire, I advanced the thought, “There has been an endless stream of Ali documentaries over the past half century. More are currently in production. For maximum impact and to make a maximum contribution to history, it’s not enough for Mr. Burns to do what has been done before better than it has been previously done. He has to break new ground.”

How could he break new ground?

“I hope,” my response continued, “that Mr. Burns devotes some time to the final twenty years of Ali’s life in a more than superficial way. These decades cry out for interpretation. What did Ali mean to the world over these years? Was his legacy corrupted by the calculated filing away of rough edges from his persona and the ‘sanitization’ of his image by CKX, ABG [two companies that owned commercial rights to Ali’s name, likeness, and image], and others for economic gain? Is there still an Ali message that resonates? In memory, can Ali be a force for positive change? Is there a way to harness the extraordinary outpouring of love that was seen around the world when Ali died?”

“Round Four” of the documentary could have addressed these issues. But it didn’t. The last thirty-five years of Ali’s life (everything after the end of his ring career) are compressed into twenty-five minutes. And much of this time is devoted to Ali lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The 1996 Olympics were an important marker in the public’s embrace of Ali. But they were also the point at which corporate America rediscovered Muhammad and the sanitization of his image for economic gain began. This was evident in everything from subsequent superficial advertising campaigns to the 2001 feature film starring Will Smith. Burns’s documentary doesn’t sanitize Ali. But it doesn’t talk about the sanitization either. And that sanitization was a corrosive force.

Decades ago, Alex Haley (who fashioned The Autobiography of Malcolm X with its subject) told me, “I think it’s important for future generations to know who Muhammad Ali was. So, if I were to talk to a young boy about Ali today – a young boy who wasn’t alive in the 1960s, who didn’t live through Vietnam, someone for whom Ali is history – I’d talk to that boy about principles and pride. I’d say, ‘If you really want to know about people and history in the times before you were born, you owe it to yourself to go back, not read books so much, but to go to a library where you’ll have access to daily papers and read about this man, every single day for years. That might give you some understanding of who Muhammad Ali was and what he meant to his people.'”

Every single day. Day after day. For years.

Muhammad Ali’s spirit is inside all of us. At its best, Ken Burns’s film reminds us of how charismatic, charming, electrifying, wise, foolish, generous, loving, cruel, kind, complex, simple, and great Ali could be.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published in October by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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