Muhammad Ali

Are you watching this?

You’ve got to. Even though I wasn’t going to.

I came home from hiking on Sunday night and Felice said she’d watched the first episode. I had no interest, I lived through it, I knew enough about Muhammad Ali. And there’d been so many other movies and documentaries, what else could be uncovered? And I’m burned out on Ken Burns. “The Civil War” was one of the best documentaries/TV shows ever, but since then…his docs have been too long and labored and I’m sick of Peter Coyote and the way he delivers the narration, with too much gravitas and heaviness, and it ends up being an endurance test. And I must say I watched the Hemingway doc and enjoyed it, but still I got Peter Coyote, and as much as there was in the series, I wanted more.

But last night I wanted to watch “Reservation Dogs” with Felice but she shooed me away, she was watching the second episode of “Muhammad Ali.” So I’m lying on the floor, stretching in front of the flat screen, watching along before I get up to read my book and…

I got hooked.

It blew my mind. Because I lived through it.

The sixties, they were coming alive right in front of my eyes.

We live in an era of upheaval today, but it’s very different from the sixties. Then again, white supremacy is still a thing. But back then misinformation was not an issue, it was all about pushing the envelope, throwing off the shackles, becoming free, to be your best self. Today the white supremacists and their brethren just want to bring us back to an era that wasn’t so good to begin with, especially for the blue collar workers who make up the majority of their base.

So what you’ve got is Muhammad Ali blazing his own path, not kowtowing and…

The country is against him.

Boston says his return matchup with Sonny Liston can’t happen, but it ends up taking place in Lewiston, Maine and Ali KO’s Liston in a matter of minutes. It was a big controversy back then, did Liston throw the fight? But Ali said he hit Sonny with this special screwdriver punch and…not only did I remember all this, they go into it in the documentary. And when you watch the footage it’s hard not to think that Sonny threw the fight, after all he was controlled by the Mafia.

But we only saw still photos back then. Here, they have all the moving pictures. Most of which I’m seeing for the very first time.

And I’m thinking how my generation is the first that can experience this, what we grew up with being on film/tape/archived. That’s de rigueur today, if anything life is over-documented, but if you want movies from the 1800’s, good luck with that.

So they show Howard Cosell. He was the first to call Cassius Clay “Muhammad Ali.” Cosell was a fixture in the environment, a player, everyone knew his name, he was far more powerful than any Kardashian, if not as rich, far more powerful than Drake and even Kanye. But today, no one knows Howard’s name, if you weren’t alive back then he doesn’t exist.

AND CHRIS SCHENKEL! We saw him over and over in sports presentations, even though at the end of his tenure people started to make fun of him.

AND JIM McKAY! In 1960, so early that he’s so young you wonder if it’s really him!

Never mind Howard Cosell on “Wide World of Sports.” That was religion if you were a kid back then, every Saturday afternoon, it was a tribal rite. You’d come in from playing sports to watch it.

That’s another thing we did, sure, there was Little League, but mostly we played sports in backyards and fields and… Baseball in the summer, football in the fall, a cornucopia of snow sports in the winter. At times I’d even grab a golf club and go hit balls in the schoolyard. Well, make that “ball,” I only had one.

So Cassius Clay is born in segregated Louisville and ends up a boxer on a lark, looking for a policeman after his bike is stolen.

And it’s not like he’s an instant phenom. And once he gets traction, everybody says he can’t win, because he doesn’t fight in the traditional manner, he doesn’t keep his hands up, he leans away from punches. Clay is dancing, but they’ve never seen it before. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

So after winning the gold medal at the Olympics a syndicate of white guys is formed and they ship Clay off to San Diego for training by the great Archie Moore.

Clay gets sent home. Because he wouldn’t buckle to Moore’s methods. Archie wanted Cassius to conform, Clay wanted to do it his way.

So Cassius ends up with Angelo Dundee in Miami and the long road to superstardom begins.

A road that’s been glossed over in the history books. Sure, Clay won, but it wasn’t always smooth, and it was far from inevitable he’d make it to the top.

Meanwhile, the country is erupting. Blacks will no longer go to the back of the bus, there are freedom marches and… Today they march for authoritarianism.

And the truth is people of color are much better off today than in the sixties, but there’s still a long way to go, and the whites still want to keep the “boys” down, they’ve given them something, ISN’T THAT ENOUGH! Change doesn’t happen overnight, be happy you’ve gotten this far. Remind you of Deborah Dugan and the old boy network at the Grammys? A cabal of men, the usual suspects, unwilling to give up control, against all change.

And as Clay moves up the boxing food chain, people want a piece of him. Johnny Carson, because the entertainment and news media strike like dogs on anything new, chew it up, and eagerly discard it for the new new thing. But Ali maintained. With endless self-promotion. Believe me, today’s social media influencers have nothing on Muhammad Ali. Ali created the paradigm, the sell was all in service to his career. The influencers? It’s really no different from the Ali game except there’s nothing underneath and everybody’s doing it.

But Ali was the only one back then. Especially a Black man, you were supposed to know your place.

But if Ali fought in the internet era one thing would be clear, his dedication to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. By time Ali was reclassified 1A and told to report for service most people thought the Black Muslim affiliation was a convenient crutch. But this documentary shows how that is patently untrue. Ali got interested in the Nation of Islam back in Miami, long before he was a famous professional. And he maintained his interest.

And that brings us to Malcolm X. Honestly, I was too young when Malcolm X was killed, he was never three-dimensional to me. But you learn all about Malcolm X here, this documentary is not only about Ali’s career, but the context of his success, what was happening in society simultaneously. And watching it makes a boomer like me marvel that I was there and I remember it. That I lived through such turbulent times, paying attention, optimistic, yet still going to school and jumping through the hoops.

This is history come alive. I don’t care if you have no interest in Muhammad Ali, you need to watch this.

And learn that Ali was right, we should have been calling him “Muhammad Ali” as soon as he changed his name. But whites didn’t believe him, didn’t think the change was genuine, even after Cosell called him Muhammad it took years for everybody else to do so.

And then everybody loves him.

They hate you before they love you.

But not everybody. Not everybody has the wherewithal, the inner strength to pay their dues. Sure, the spotlight was bright for Ali’s fights and bloviations, but there was a lot of hard work that went unseen, the training, you watch Ali run with the bus, seemingly effortlessly, and if you are a boomer you realize how hard that was, especially because you can’t do it now.

As for the narration…

It’s done by actor Keith David. Who is far superior to Peter Coyote. David is more straightforward, there are fewer pregnant pauses, less fake gravitas.

And the talking heads…

Sure, some of them are the usual suspects, but most are Black men, eloquent and insightful. For far too long we’ve let the white man tell the Black man’s story.

And there are some surprises. David Remnick? Editor of “The New Yorker”?

But that’s how far Ali’s reach was. And how important sports were.

America was active. As a result people were skinnier and healthier. Sports weren’t professionalized at a young age, there were no traveling squads, no specialization, we were all just people, together in the pool.

But not always the Black people. They fought not for their right to party, but their right to be included, to be equal. And now, half a century later, these same white supremacists want to deny them the right of participation. Even worse, a tilted phony Supreme Court says equality reigns and there are no needs for voter protection. Imagine if you’re one of the oppressed. Oh, that’s right, today THE WHITES ARE OPPRESSED! The Black man got too much, affirmative action, he must be put back in his place.

But not Muhammad Ali.

This is a tour-de-force!

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