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Ken Burns’ Muhammad Ali Documentary Review – Episode 3: The Rivalry

ken burns ali documentary joe frazier

After returning to boxing from his forced exile, Muhammad Ali, although only 28 at the time, had shown in his first two fights back against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena that he had lost a step from his unparalleled foot and hand speed before the layoff. This was proven to be a huge significant factor in losing his iconic March 8, 1971 fight against Joe Frazier. Ken Burns, along with his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon, do a masterful job of detailing the story of how the over 42 month period away from boxing affected Ali in his first two fights between Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.

Once again the filmmaking trio meticulous approach to detail on Ali’s fight career is unwavering. With Keith David doing another commanding job in narrating the action of the four fights Ali engaged with Frazier and Norton between 1971-1973, the loss of Ali’s legendary foot speed was well pronounced. As David mentions throughout part three, Ali made up for this lost of speed by relying more on his heart and the discovery that he had one of the greatest chins in boxing history, as witnessed in all four fights.

The filmmaking trio also do an astounding job in giving the back story of both Frazier and Norton. Through the iconic voice of David, we learn that both Frazier and Norton came from both very humble beginnings. Both are hardworking men who built themselves into tough, hard nosed fighters. While neither possessed the natural athletic ability of Ali, both men possessed an extreme desire to win that enabled them to upset Ali in their first fights with the legend.

Ali’s dark side is again brought to light by the filmmaking trio. Ali’s incessant needling of Frazier’s lack of verbal prowess and physical makeup is one of the biggest malfeasances perpetrated by Ali. There has never been an athlete past or present that boasted the gift of gab Ali had. His verbal sparring with Frazier was already a mismatch. Ali’s vulgar statements about Frazier’s speech and shape of his head were unnecessary and hurt Frazier immensely. It reminded me of the Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace feud of 1995-1996. Shakur needled Wallace for an entire year on television and print and Wallace never could match Shakur’s disparaging remarks about Wallace’s obesity or the alleged affair he had with his wife. What made both situations eerily similar was the fact that in both cases these men were at one time very close friends.

Part three ends with Ali getting hard fought wins against both Norton and Frazier in subsequent rematches, resulting in Ali agreeing to new promoter Don King’s offer of five million dollars to fight the seemingly indestructible George Foreman for the right to once again become heavyweight champion of the world. We all know the conclusion to that fight. The only question we have is how the filmmaking trio through the evocative voice of David tell this story that has been told time and time again.

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