Mohamed Ali, the great beyond the gloves

How to talk about boxing without having in mind, at least these days, the sad fate of Jeanette Zacarias Zapata? This summer, the 18-year-old Mexican boxer died in Montreal from head injuries sustained during a clash held at IGA Stadium, the most recent corporate name given to sports facilities planted in the middle of this public space that is Jarry Park.

Sport codified in the 19th centurye century in the name of fair-play British boxing quickly became extremely popular, drawing huge crowds to it. Since time, the deleterious effects of blows to the head are no longer a secret. However, boxing derivatives, much stronger, more or less patented variants of kickboxing and Thai boxing, continue to be popularized.

Several outstanding boxers have become popular idols. The list of names that make up this pantheon is long. I think loose of Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, Archie Moore, but also Yvon Durelle and Ovila Chapelaine, known as Jack Delaney. There were great boxers. However, the greatest man to have ever been a boxer is undoubtedly Mohamed Ali.

Director Ken Burns has made America the subject that underlies all of his outstanding documentaries. This time he is interested in Ali. And you don’t have to be a boxing enthusiast to immerse yourself in this life.

Here is a universal hero. You do not know him, or badly? This documentary is for you. As for all the others besides. Because with Ali, we never finished.

Beyond misery

In 2016, when Mohamed Ali died, many kept of him the image of a diminished man projected to the multitudes at the opening of the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. Ali held up the Olympic flame there, although his health was now tottering. After suffering multiple concussions, Ali had suffered, at least since 1984, from Parkinson’s disease. He, whose decisive speed of gestures had earned him a gold medal at the 1960 Games in Rome, was no more than a shadow of himself.

It is now easy to forget that boxing was able to represent, at a moment in human history, a formidable lever of social ascent and liberation. Many young people found themselves boxing, like Ali, because it was after all less dangerous to learn to master your body perfectly in a gymnasium and then to enter a ring than to find yourself, left to yourself, in the jungle of what a life of misery promised us, in the street or elsewhere.

Here are four new episodes from Ali’s life, supported by a prodigious quantity of archival documents. There is no shortage of films devoted to Ali. And yet, this one is certainly not too many. Ken Burns slowly dismantles and then reassembles, as a watchmaker of the time that it is, the life of this young boy of nothing, Cassius Clay. He accompanies her, from the cradle to the tomb. But in doing so, it is a whole company that he will present.

As a kid, Cassius Clay has a bike stolen. He rages. This injustice weighs on him. That sick man promises to chastise whoever did it with his own hands. Along the way, in his nervousness to find the culprit, he enters a gymnasium where a former policeman suggests that he stop getting angry and train instead …

From small to large

Even before he has won a single fight, the young man predicts that he will be the greatest. How many crazy heads have been able, one day or another, without ever reconnecting with reality, to say such things in order to better escape their condition? Young Cassius Clay, overwhelmed by his own self-confidence, certainly has more words that come to his mouth than constant rushes in his gloves. A boxer like so many others for his trainer … But all this will quickly rebalance differently.

Yes, this youngster is talking. Yes, he has a big mouth. But soon, his words are commensurate with his achievements. He is so gifted that a group of businessmen are trying to protect him from the clutches of the underworld into which boxers are usually thrown. He is salaried and protected by legal armor. Of course, all these beautiful people expect a return on their investments.

His body has the means to take him far. Has anyone ever seen a boxer capable of dancing this way? Look at the pictures of his first fights. He steals. He floats. He fends off a number of blows with prodigious flexibility. Mohamed Ali’s uncommon anticipation defies understanding. How is it ?


His father, a violent man, felt the segregation of his family severely. Is the son the heir of his father’s views? It will take some time in fact for Mohamed Ali, even in the choice of his name, to assert an indisputably political speech. First, he simply did not wish to displease his sponsors, still not going as far as Joe Louis, who restrained his desire to celebrate his victories when he triumphed over a white man. In the case of Ali, very quickly, the man goes far beyond the dimension of the boxer who in a way legitimizes his right to speak.

It’s hard to imagine a man who polarized passions so much. During his lifetime, Mohamed Ali was often hated. Because he was black, Muslim, anti-militarist or even favorable to the poorest in society, many people found reasons to hate him. He paid the price, never giving up his ideas. Of course, he was also adored, playing like no one with a formidable charisma, which was carried by a sense of prodigious repartee. How, at the hour of his death, had he managed to arouse such unanimity, almost devotion, around himself?

Her daughter, called to testify throughout this documentary, remembers never really having understood who this man was, whom she nevertheless recognized as her father. By the time he was holding her in his arms, she was still amazed to see the crowd circling around him to cheer and chant that he was the tallest.

Muhammad Ali

PBS, September 19-22, 8 p.m.

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