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Ken Burns’ Muhammad Ali Documentary Review – Episode 4: The Spell Remains

ken burns ali documentary part 4

In the long and illustrious history of American sports, no man achieved a greater comeback than Muhammad Ali’s comeback in the 1970s after his forced 42-month exile from boxing for refusing to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. Part four of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on Muhammad Ali continues the very comprehensive look at Ali’s fight career that was crafted in the first three parts, as magnificently detailed by the incomparable narration of Keith David.

David’s retelling of the famed Rumble in the Jungle fight between Ali and George Foreman as scripted by Burns, his daughter Sarah and het husband David McMahon is picture perfect. The filmmaking trio, through David’s regal voice, describe Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy that worked to perfection. The archival footage of the fight illustrates the genius of Ali’s game plan that made Foreman punch himself out leading the fresher Ali to eventually knock him out to regain the heavyweight championship of the world in Kinshasa, Zaire. The archival footage leading up to the fight demonstrated the extreme love the people of Zaire had for Ali and their indifference towards Foreman. After Ali regained his title that was unfairly taken from him seven years prior to his win over Foreman, he had become the most recognizable man on the planet.

The filmmaking trio again didn’t shy away from the negative aspects of his life. While in Zaire, Ali began having an affair with the stunning Veronica Porshe behind his wife Belinda’s back. Both women talk about their undying love for Muhammad and his propensity for being unfaithful. While still married to Belinda, Ali brought Veronica to Manila the week of his third fight with Joe Frazier and introduced her as his wife to Ferdinand Marcos, leader of the Philippines. After Belinda and Ali divorced, he and Veronica eventually got married. Veronica and Muhammad would divorce in 1985 and a year later, Ali would marry his fourth and final wife Lonnie Williams.

Ali’s verbal assault on Frazier is painfully painted by the filmmaking trio. Archival footage of Ali calling one of his sparring partners pretending to be Frazier a gorilla and then during a press conference hitting a toy gorilla while also calling him Frazier was just plain foul behavior. As stated in my last review, Ali’s verbal prowess was unparalleled. Frazier never had the gift of gab and was completely emasculated by Ali’s ignorant tactics. Until the day Frazier died, he never forgave Ali.

David’s narration of the epic Ali-Frazier Thriller in Manila was, in my opinion, the single greatest dramatization of the greatest fight in boxing history. David’s booming voice described the brutality of the fight at great length, including the 13th and 14th rounds in which a basically blind Frazier took one of the worst beatings ever seen in a heavyweight title fight. Although Ali won this war and the trilogy, the rest of part four clearly gives testimony that he was never the same physically.

The archival footage of Ali’s speech cadence was frightening to hear after the one-sided thrashings he took at the hands of Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick in his final two fights. Listen to him being interviewed after his loss to Berbick. Now 38-years-old, Ali spoke soft and slow. This was December of 1981. Three years later, Muhammad would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome. By the mid 1990s, he would no longer talk while in public. He’d whisper to either his wife Lonnie or best friend Howard Bingham and they’d tell reporters his answers. Then came 1996 and the Atlanta Summer Olympics.

The filmmaking trio illustrate Ali’s lighting of the Olympic torch as the final straw that showed America, a country that once showered him with unbridled hatred, now loved him unconditionally. The last 20 years of his life saw Ali travel the world as an ambassador for the sick and downtrodden, despite his growing illness. When he finally passed away at the age of 74 in 2016, he was given a funeral and memorial on the same level as any American President ever received.

The entire four part Muhammad Ali documentary was a very thorough and intense look back at one of the most famous people who ever lived. The filmmaking trio, through the voice of the iconic Keith David, not only described Ali’s greatest achievements, they described in detail his greatest flaws. They also completely downplayed the role of legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, who unfairly was described in both the Will Smith movie Ali and other documentaries as a much more vital part of Ali’s life than he really was. Ken Burns’ Muhammad Ali is another in a great year of boxing documentaries. It’s a must see for not only boxing fans, but people who love both American and world history.

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