Following the success of his three-part series Hemingway in spring 2021, Emmy-winning documentarian Ken Burns, 68, returns with a new show about an equally compelling and complicated 20th-century man: Muhammad Ali. The eight-hour docuseries premieres on PBS on Sept. 19, and before you tune in, check out our list of the many ways the heavyweight champion changed conversations about race, religion, politics and, of course, sports in America.
1. He was a heavyweight known as much for his style as his strength
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was more than a catchphrase for Ali — it was a perfect summation of his one-of-a-kind boxing style. Early in his career, commentators didn't quite know what to make of him. Rather than relying on pummeling punches like other heavyweights, he was as light on his feet as a ballerina, dodging hits and dancing around the ring with his patented “Ali shuffle.” He kept his hands low to bait his opponents, tiring them out in the process and then striking like a cobra, with a jab he called the “snake lick.” As Robert Lipsyte wrote in his 2016 New York Times obituary, “Ali was the most thrilling if not the best heavyweight ever, carrying into the ring a physically lyrical, unorthodox boxing style that fused speed, agility, and power more seamlessly than that of any fighter before him."
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2. … and he turned the “rope-a-dope” into a secret weapon
A master of wordplay, Ali coined the term “rope-a-dope” to describe his sneaky and highly effective tactic, which he mastered to its fullest effect during the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), opposite George Foreman. Ali would rest his body on the ropes, allowing Foreman to get in a barrage of blows, and use the ropes’ elasticity to absorb most of the energy from the strikes. His opponent would eventually tire himself out, throwing punch after punch after punch, leaving Ali to go in for the knockout. Even though Ali was seven years older than Foreman and considered an underdog, he won by knockout in the eighth round. The upset victory has been called one of the great sports moments of the 20th century, and the rope-a-dope technique has gone on to be used successfully by other boxers, such as Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
5 Films to Watch to Learn More About ‘The Greatest’
Will Smith, 52, packed on 35 pounds of muscle and earned an Oscar nomination for this biopic directed by Michael Mann, 78.
Watch it: Ali, on Peacock
When We Were Kings (1996)
This Academy Award winner for best documentary feature tells the story of Ali’s 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman.
Watch it: When We Were Kings, on Showtime
One Night in Miami… (2020)
The directorial debut of actress Regina King (50) imagines a fictionalized meeting in 1964 between Ali, Jim Brown (85), Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, on the night of the Clay-Liston fight.
The Greatest (1977)
Ali plays himself in this 1977 biopic, which traces his life from the 1960 Summer Olympics to the “Rumble in the Jungle,” with a title song that was later covered and made world-famous by Whitney Houston.
Watch it: The Greatest, on Apple TV+
I Am Ali (2014)
With appearances by the likes of George Foreman and Mike Tyson (55), this intimate documentary also incorporates personal audio recordings made by Ali himself in the 1970s.
Watch it: I Am Ali, on Google Play and other streaming platforms
3. He made the American public think about race in a new way
On the night of Feb. 25, 1964, Malcolm X watched ringside as Cassius Clay trounced Sonny Liston to be named the world heavyweight champion for the first of three times. The next day, at a news conference, Clay announced that he would be changing his name to Cassius X — an homage to his mentor and friend and a rejection of the white name that had been passed down to him. Weeks later, he officially made the switch to Muhammad Ali. “Cassius Clay is a slave name,” he said. “I didn't choose it, and I don't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name. It means ‘beloved of God,’ and I insist people use it when people speak to me."
4. He was one of the first professional athletes to put politics before sports
Decades before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a stand for racial justice by kneeling during the national anthem, Ali also saw his career suffer for his beliefs. On April 28, 1967, he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army, citing his Muslim faith and his unwillingness to fight underprivileged people on the other side of the world. “It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted,” he said at the time. “I find I cannot be true to my beliefs in my religion by accepting such a call.” Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title, and in June of that year, he was convicted of draft evasion, which came with a $10,000 fine, a five-year prison sentence and a three-year ban from the sport of boxing. The appeals process kept him out of jail, but he didn't return to the ring until Oct. 26, 1970. The Supreme Court later overturned the conviction in 1971.
5. He was a genius at using the media
Brash, charming, braggadocious and funny, Ali was a media darling from the start of his career. He made an art out of trash talk, spinning unflattering nicknames for his opponents and inventing digestible narratives that raised his bouts to the level of tall tales and myths. “He's too ugly to be world champion,” he said, before his 1964 title challenge against Liston. “The world champ should be pretty like me!” He dubbed himself “the king of the world,” “the prettiest thing that ever lived” and “the greatest” and journalists breathlessly covered every news conference, controversy, fight and political move. One of the most photographed athletes in history, Ali appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated 40 times, bested only by Michael Jordan, 58.
6. … and his rhyming brags may have led to the invention of a new genre of music
According to the 2006 book Ali Rap: Muhammad Ali the First Heavyweight Champion of Rap, edited by graphic designer George Lois, 90, the fighter's brags and putdowns may have inadvertently influenced the birth of rap music in the 1970s. “Before there was rap, there was Ali Rap,” Lois writes, “a topsy-turvy, jivey jargon that only Ali could create, but a language we could all understand.” Rapper and actor LL Cool J, 53, once told Rolling Stone, “Without Muhammad Ali, there would be no ‘Mama Said Knock You Out,’ and the term G.O.A.T. [greatest of all time] would have never been coined.” And even a non-hip-hop fan can recognize the swaggering poetry of a quote like this 1974 gem: “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick."
7. He became a pop culture legend
Ali's masterful relationship with the media extended to the world of entertainment as well. He appeared in commercials for everything from roach spray to spark plugs to Pizza Hut, starred as himself in the 1977 biopic The Greatest, and even inspired a European dance craze, which mimicked his fancy footwork and fighting stance, after he knocked out Karl Mildenberger in 1966. In 2002, Ali received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and for the first time in history, it was placed on a vertical surface — a wall at the Dolby Theater — instead of down on the sidewalk. Why? “I bear the name of our Beloved Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him),” he said, “and it is impossible that I allow people to trample over his name."
8. He put his celebrity status toward worthy causes
Despite a perhaps well-earned reputation for ego and showboating, Ali always used his fame to fight for causes he believed in, participating in such events as 1978's The Longest Walk, a protest march in support of Native American rights. He dedicated his post-retirement years to philanthropy and humanitarianism, pursuits that took him all around the world: to Iraq, to negotiate the release of American hostages; to Cuba, to deliver medical aid; to Afghanistan and North Korea, on goodwill missions with the UN. In 1984, he made his Parkinson's diagnosis public, and he later worked with actor Michael J. Fox, 60, to raise awareness and fundraise to fight for a cure.
One of the lasting images that many modern fans have of Ali — who won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome — was his triumphant lighting of the Olympic Cauldron at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The event was watched by some 3.5 billion viewers around the globe.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.