The Greatest

One our favorite documentarians, Ken Burns, has made Muhammad Ali, a four-part series (2 hours each segment) to be broadcast on PBS beginning nine days from now, Sunday, September 19th. Burns began work on the film the year Ali died, 2016. It is described as being comprehensive, because all previous treatments were focused on single events, or short spans of his life. Commentators are saying it is ‘mind-blowing.’

Muhammad Ali became a hero of mine while he was still Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., in 1963-64. The boxing match that would launch Ali’s amazing career was coming in late February 1964. My good hometown friend Lyman was rooting for Sonny Liston, even though Sonny was a criminal with Mob ties. I asked Lyman why, and he said Clay was too ‘mouthy’ and he wanted someone to shut him up. Lyman’s parents hailed from Georgia, and to folks in the South, a Black man speaking up too much was considered ‘getting uppity,’ Clay had learned from the wrestler ‘Gorgeous’ George Wagner that controversy was good for the box office, and that it gave him an advantage in the ring if he could annoy his opponent.

A week after beating Liston in a huge upset, Clay announced his name change to Mahammad Ali. I became a fan of Howard Cosell when he immediately began calling Ali by his new name, while other white sportswriters and announcers were very slow to do the same.

By 1966 Ali was speaking against the war in Vietnam and was persecuted for it. He was credited with saying two of the most cogent statements regarding his refusal to fight in that war: I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong, and no Viet Cong ever called me n****r.

Ali was a great man, and in some ways, truly the greatest. Excoriated by many in the 1960s and 70s, he became widely revered in the second half of his life, and his travels and humanitarian work made him the most recognized person on earth.

Here is Billy Crystal’s very funny eulogy at the Ali memorial service in Louisville:

Rev. Leland Bond-Upson

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