In a new Ken Burns production, the athletic legend gets the full doc treatment

Muhammad AliPBSIt’s not a stretch to say that Muhammad Ali was one of the most consequential men of the 20th century—in and out of the boxing ring. Consequently, he’s getting the Ken Burns treatment in a multi-part doc.

Muhammad Ali, a four-part, eight-hour production, airs Sunday through Wednesday this week. And as you’d expect from Burns (whose previous efforts include Baseball, Jazz, The Civil War and more), it offers a truly comprehensive look at the life of the three-time heavyweight champ, whose speed, agility and smarts thrilled the sport’s fans and whose principled stands on human rights, racial and religious biases, and the war in Vietnam inspired people around the world, challenging notions of the role athletes can play in society.

The film covers all the bases of the man born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., from his childhood in Louisville and a personal life that included four marriages to his conversion to Islam, his complex relationships with Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, his refusal to enter the military during the war, the consequent prison sentence and loss of his first heavyweight title.

And then, of course, there were the rivalries (Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman) and the fights (Rumble in the Jungle, Thrilla in Manila) before his retirement, post-boxing life and death from Parkinson’s in 2016.

Muhammad AliPBSAlong the way, we learn that Ali was a man of many contradictions—one of incredible wit, kindness and generosity who could also be exceedingly cruel to opponents he didn’t like. His infamous boasts of “I am the greatest” were at times counterbalanced by humility, which he notably exhibited after losing to Frazier in 1971.

“He basically has been bragging about it,” Burns recalls of that particular moment in his subject’s storied career. “He’s been ragging, I think, irresponsibly and inexcusably about Joe Frazier and using the terms that White racists use to describe Black men. And he loses... and the next morning, he is completely quiet and silent and self-contained and talking about how everyone has losses: ‘I’m here as an example to remind people that the death of a loved one or the loss of a job or a loss of a title is just what life does.’

“And it might appear to be an opposite of all the braggadocio but the braggadocio... plus that humility is exactly the same thing. It is communicating to all of the people of the world who feel like everything is stacked against them, particularly people of colour.”

Burns, who produced the documentary with Stephanie Jenkins and writers/directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon, often talks about his documentary subjects being examples of “history firing on all cylinders.” In the case of Ali, he says, this one was “a souped-up engine.”

“He’s one of the few people from the past that I’d want to hang out with,” Burns says. “I think certainly Lincoln, Louis Armstrong and Muhammad Ali... He is a kind of über-American, in every sense of the word.”

Muhammad Ali airs Sunday at 5 p.m. & 7:15 p.m. on WTVS; 8 p.m. & 10:15 p.m. on KCTS; and Monday through Wednesday at 5 p.m. & 7 p.m. on WTVS; 8 p.m. & 10 p.m. on KCTS