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Gatti-Robinson All But Forgotten As Gatti-Ward Legend Ascends

Bernard Fernandez

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There are some names that are meant to be coupled forever: Sonny and Cher, Magic and Bird, Bonnie and Clyde, Romeo and Juliet, Tracy and Hepburn, DiMaggio and Williams, Borg and McEnroe.

And, of course, Ali and Frazier.

Arch-rivalries, and arch-alliances, stir the soul and fuel the imagination. That is as true in sports as it is entertainment, crime and literature, and there is no realm of athletic competition that lends itself to such mental associations as much as boxing, which pits one individual against another. When a clash of figurative titans is repeated often enough, it takes on the trappings of legend, more so than can ever be the case with single confrontations, or when teammates are involved. If Ali-Frazier is accepted as the gold standard, then the next level, just slightly down from the summit, consists of such revered series as Zale-Graziano, Pep-Saddler, Robinson-LaMotta, Holyfield-Bowe and maybe a few others.

Now ask yourself this: When anyone mentions the late action hero, Arturo Gatti, which opponent immediately comes to mind? The answer, in most cases, has become obvious.

“Irish” Micky Ward.

But while the Gatti-Ward trilogy continues to ascend in the pantheon of boxing’s most acclaimed rivalries, with ample justification, the effect is the gradual diminishment of other bouts involving Gatti that also were so fiercely competitive they also deserve to be carefully stored away in fans’ memories as if they were family heirlooms. Gatti-Ward, Parts I, II and II, is terrific when considered as stand-alone segments or in its entirety, but not so much that the names of Wilson Rodriguez, Angel Manfredy and Rafael Ruelas deserve to be pushed off to the side, gathering dust.

But the principal victim of the continuing rise of Gatti-Ward is Ivan Robinson, who made the mistake – he didn’t know it was a mistake at the time – of winning both of his immensely entertaining slugfests with Gatti in 1998, the first of which was voted Fight of the Year by both the Boxing Writers Association of America and The Ring magazine, although the rematch was a virtual carbon copy of the original.

If Robinson could have peered into the future, like some sort of pugilistic Nostradamus, he might have recognized that it would have served him better to have split those two fights with Gatti, creating a huge public demand for a rubber match. He would have recognized that he needed to take up golf and play a few well-publicized rounds with Gatti, and later on to agree to train the Italian-born, Montreal-reared, Jersey City-based fighter in the closing stages of his career. But it was Ward who did all that, and the back story of his friendship with Gatti took on a life of its own, each intersection of their lives embellishing what had taken place inside the ropes.

Dec. 12 marks the 16th anniversary of Robinson’s second bout with Gatti in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, a fight so exhilarating that it left the combatants physically and mentally drained, but everyone else in attendance and those watching on HBO craving a third meeting that, alas, was not to be.

Lou DiBella, then the senior vice president of HBO Sports who later would form his promotional company and serve as an adviser to Ward, was almost hyperventilating after Robinson’s razor-thin, unanimous 10-round decision, which would have ended in a majority draw had not referee Benji Esteves deducted a penalty point from Gatti in the eighth round for low blows. Gatti got the nod on the official cards by margins of 97-92 and 95-94 (twice).

“This is unbelievable,” DiBella said after the last punch had been fired, and probably landed. “You have to go back to Zale-Graziano, something like that, to even find something to compare to it. I mean, it’s ridiculous.

“It doesn’t get much better than that. Maybe these guys should just fight each other all the time.”

An interesting suggestion, but one in stark contrast to the scene in the ring after the final bell had sounded. After the traditional postfight hug of exhausted and respectful rivals, Robinson’s manager, Eddie Woods, announced on-camera that his guy had forever concluded his business with Gatti.

“We ain’t fighting Gatti again,” Woods said with an air of finality.

Asked if he went along with what Woods had said, Robinson wearily agreed. “You heard my manager. There won’t be a Robinson-Gatti III.”

Interestingly, after Robinson failed to take advantage of the opportunity that had been afforded him by his back-to-back conquests of Gatti – the Philadelphia lightweight lost a one-sided decision to Manfredy in his next bout four months later – two things became increasingly apparent. One, having twice gone to hell and back against Gatti while wearing a gasoline overcoat, Robinson was never the same as he had been on those two supercharged nights. And two, as his newfound star power began to ebb and Gatti remained a box-office draw and HBO staple, that third meeting he had said he would never consider became the object of a desperate quest that would not reach fruition.

“I know I can get another fight with Gatti,” Robinson said on Aug. 17, 2004, after he lost a desultory eight-round split decision to journeyman Reggie Nash at the Valley Forge (Pa.) Convention Center. “If I can just put together a couple of good wins …”

But it didn’t happen for Robinson, whose fast-handed style at his peak was so likened to that of another Philly fighter, two-division world champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Meldrick Taylor, that some took to calling him “Meldrick Lite.” Robinson, whose preferred nickname is “Mighty,” was 27-2 after his second points nod over Gatti, but just 5-10-2 following the second Gatti fight, finishing with a record of 32-12-2 with 12 victories inside the distance.

It was a good career, all things considered, good enough to earn Robinson enshrinement in both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Boxing Halls of Fame. Still, the lingering impression is that Robinson too often was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rated No. 1 by USA Boxing in the 132-pound weight class heading into the 1992 U.S. Olympic boxing trials, he lost a controversial decision to Julian Wheeler and then another in the box-offs, thus failing to gain inclusion on the American team that competed in Barcelona, Spain. He also likely made a likely misstep by declining, at Woods’ urging, to accept a high-visibility bout with Oscar De La Hoya in Madison Square Garden because his manager believed he wasn’t quite ready for a matchup with the “Golden Boy,” whom Robinson had faced several times in the amateurs. Jesse James Leija got the MSG gig with the emerging superstar instead, and Robinson never again got the chance to mix it up with De La Hoya.

In what would prove to be his only shot at a world championship, Robinson lost a unanimous decision to IBF lightweight titlist Philip Holiday of South Africa on Dec. 21, 1996, in Uncasville, Conn. He was released by his promotional company, Main Events, following his third-round stoppage by Israel Cardona on July 1, 1997, and he was viewed by as damaged goods, or at least in decline, when he was offered an HBO date against Gatti, who was coming off an eighth-round stoppage defeat, on cuts, in another slam-bam war against Manfredy on Jan. 17, 1998.

Hardly anyone expected what took place that night in Boardwalk Hall on Aug. 22, 1998. But Pat Lynch, Gatti’s longtime manager, had an uneasy feeling that Robinson might be something more than a mere bounce-back opponent for his man.

“Eddie Woods will tell you I didn’t want the (first) fight with Ivan,” Lynch recalled when interviewed for this story. “I thought he was a little too slick and too good a boxer for Arturo. I had watched a tape that Carl Moretti (then a Main Events executive) had given me of a fight Ivan had lost to some Spanish kid (Manuel De Leon), where Ivan didn’t look that good. But even so, you could see flashes of that skill, that slickness. I thought to myself, `Maybe this is not a guy we want to fight right now.’

“So, yeah, I always looked at Ivan as someone who would be a really difficult opponent for Arturo because of his style. I wasn’t surprised that he was as tough as I thought he’d be. What did surprise me was the way he stood in there and traded with Arturo. He didn’t run and make Arturo go after him. He was right there.”

Robinson, then 27, had decided beforehand that his best strategy was to meet Gatti head-on. If he lost, and was lackluster in doing so, his chance of regaining semi-elite status might be gone forever. And, besides, he knew that Gatti, as big a puncher and as much of a shock absorber as he was, was available to be hit. So why not just turn it loose?

Second seconds into the first round, Gatti’s left eye was discolored and puffy. That eye began to bleed in Round 3, but Gatti recovered enough to floor Robinson in the fourth and the action remained fast and furious to the final bell. When it was over, Robinson, a 5-1 underdog, had won by margins of 98-93 and 96-94 on the scorecards submitted by Melvin Lathan and Steve Weisfeld, respectively, with Ed Leahy going with Gatti by 96-93.

“Exceptional. Exceptional,” said Lathan, who is now heads the New York State Athletic Commission. “I don’t think I breathed the whole 10 rounds. Just wonderful.”

Said a tired but very happy Robinson: “This was my best fight, even though it wasn’t a championship fight. I thought I would get him out of there, but he always came back. He’s like a stick of dynamite.”

There was an instant demand for a rematch, of course, and Robinson, who made $51,000 for the first fight, snagged a career-high $400,000 payday for the do-over, which he imagined would be fought more on his terms.

“I could have made the first fight a lot easier,” Robinson said as the days to the rematch counted down. “(Trainer) Butch (Cathay) was telling me that after every round. But in that fight, I had something to prove. Six months ago, nobody knew who Ivan Robinson was. Everybody had written me off.

“I know I have the best chin in the lightweight division. I wanted to prove – not to the fans, but to myself – that I could take Arturo’s best shot. That’s why, at times, I stood there with him and got hurt. And you kind of get lured into that because, well, Gatti is just so easy to hit. There wasn’t a problem hitting Gatti then. There won’t be a problem hitting him now. There’s never been a problem hitting Gatti. The question I had in my mind was whether I could withstand his pressure. I’ve done that. For this second fight, I don’t have anything to prove to anybody.”

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Gatti again turned the heat up on Robinson, and the same kind of war was fought at close distance. As was the case the first time, the Philadelphia in Robinson was brought out when he was challenged.

“I learned from being in the first fight that when you hurt Arturo, I guess that makes him mad,” Robinson said. “It makes him go deeper into the gas tank.”

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Now saddled with a three-bout losing streak, it was thought that Gatti was the fighter that needed to be rebuilt; Robinson was seen as the hot property. But Robinson was easily outpointed his next time out by Manfredy while Gatti continued to be what DiBella called “The Human Highlight Reel.” Their paths separated, Robinson drifting toward lesser revelance and Gatti moving on to megafights with De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr., the trilogy with Ward and eventual induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Asked for his memories of Robinson, DiBella said, “He was a warrior, and a quality fighter. Those two fights with Gatti brought the very best out of him.

“But Gatti was the draw. He was the HBO fighter. Even though Ivan won those fights, you didn’t see him gain anything from that. It wasn’t like he started getting all these big fights with big-name fighters. His career didn’t take off all of a sudden because of him beating Gatti twice. Gatti was still that guy. He could lose a fight or even a couple of fights and still be someone everyone wanted to see more of.”

Lynch also thinks that maybe Gatti-Robinson has been somewhat shortchanged by history, at least in comparison to Gatti-Ward.

“I think maybe that has been the case,” Lynch said. “I think those two fights have been kind of lost. Arturo’s fights with Ivan were just incredible. They were very competitive, the crowd was on its feet pretty much from the beginning of each fight through the end. It’s just that everybody was so sold on Arturo’s trilogy with ward, which deserves everything that it gets. But that doesn’t change the fact that Arturo’s fights with Ivan were great, great fights.”

Prior to his Nov. 13, 2012, induction into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, Robinson said he didn’t think Ward had bumped him all the way out of the spotlight as far as co-billing with Gatti is concerned.

“I’m pleased that so many people recognize what I did in my fights with Gatti,” he said. “I will always love Gatti. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be as known as I am today. And I don’t (begrudge) Micky Ward for the acclaim he gets for his fights with Gatti. They were great fights and he deserves all the praise for what he did.

“My only regret is that me and Micky Ward never fought. I wanted to fight him, he didn’t want to fight me. I guess it was about money; it usually is when a fight doesn’t get made. But don’t get me wrong. I love Micky Ward, too. I’m just glad to be in the mix of fighters who are always mentioned for being in great fights like the ones we had with Gatti.”

Now 43, Robinson is still in boxing as a trainer, working with young fighters at the Harrowgate Boxing Club in Philly. He said he is blessed to be in good health, and he is too busy with looking ahead to fret about what he might or might not have done in the past.

“I always felt that I was a great fighter,” he said. “I had some losses that I shouldn’t have had before Gatti, and that’s on me. But when I was able to get in that position again, I relished it. I thought I could beat Gatti, and I did. I did it twice. He was going to have to kill me to beat me. I think he did more in the first fight than he did in the second fight. After the fourth round of the second fight, I think he knew there was nothing he could do to beat me.

“I was a good fighter then, a smart fighter. I got what I could get and then I got out. Everything else is what it is. I got to be satisfied with that.”

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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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