Review: Muhammad Ali documentary introduces sports icon to a new generation

Muhammad Ali in 1966 – Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia Commons

The entire world knows of Muhammad Ali but as time passes, the intricacies of a complicated man fade from view. Muhammad Ali, a documentary directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and Kevin McMahon, reveals one of sport’s most famous athletes to a new generation.

The four-part series’ first episode premiered on September 19, giving an in-depth background profile on a young Cassius Clay. The viewers watch as Clay—who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali—starts his boxing carrier, youthful and notably ordinary. The story is built via several interviews with his friends and training partners, painting a picture of Ali before he achieved global acclaim. Viewers see the young Clay critiqued for his unusual fighting style—that later made him so successful in the ring. 

Watching a career roll open, the film covers Ali easily winning gold in the 1960 Olympic Games and going back to the U.S. to begin his professional career—and the biggest chapter in his life. 

Burns shows how Ali dominated his early fights with relative ease. Eventually, the series reached Ali vs. Liston and their fight for the World Heavyweight title. Even knowing the results of fights such as this one, I found the film’s recounting spellbinding. Burns conveys the brutality of the sport and shows the vicious quick speed of Ali as he commanded the ring.

While keeping up with Ali’s boxing, the documentary also provides context on his political actions and activism, which became the base for both his support and hatred. Soon after winning against Liston, Cassius Clay announced that he would join the Nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. At the time, the Nation of Islam believed in Black separatism and the idea of separate but equal. This did not make him particularly popular with leaders of the Civil Rights movement or similar advocates in the South. Further tarnishing his reputation in many quarters, Ali announced that he would not fight in the Vietnam War based on his religion. Despite the validity of his reason, it only contributed to more hate.

Burns communicates the various opinions of Ali and the larger-than-life role he assumed. Throughout his career, Ali rejected the expectations of others as he evolved into a champion for African Americans. Despite differing opinions, Ali met with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, forging friendships and discussing civil rights. 

Ali continued to fight, and soon the documentary covers Ali vs. Frazier. Widely considered the biggest fight of Ali’s career, viewers hold their breath as Frazier wins the first interaction in the ring. While the documentary works to spotlight Muhammad Ali, it does not hesitate to highlight his flaws. Showing how the Frazier fights brought out the worst in him—including casting Frazier as a traitor to the Black community.

The series depicts Ali’s rise to success and similarly harnesses detail in painting his decline, as Ali’s speech progressively gets worse, due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease.

The show touches on almost all of Ali’s fights, and it must be watched to appreciate how great of an athlete he was.

The documentary shows an entirely new generation the story of one of history’s greatest boxers. People that only know the athlete by name can appreciate an inspiring man in a marvelous documentary. Ken Burns is known for his distinct ability to tell the entirety of a story, and Muhammad Ali is no exception. 

Author: Connor Pinsk '23

Managing Editor Connor Pinsk joined The Index in the fall of 2019. He previously served as Neighborhood Editor.