Though “Muhammad Ali” is debuting well after “The Last Dance,” it’s hard not to think of it as a sort of spiritual prequel to ESPN’s propulsive docuseries. “The Last Dance,” which detailed the rise of Michael Jordan as both a superstar athlete and unstoppable global brand, immediately became a sensation upon its April 2020 premiere. With Jordan on board as a subject, source and producer, “The Last Dance” told the story of a man, but also the story of the time and place in which he thrived. As an ever-charismatic Jordan gave his interviews from inside a seemingly palatial home, cigar and Scotch constantly at the ready, he made it easy to understand how he’d become such a colossal figure in sports and culture alike.
Co-directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns, “Muhammad Ali” never mentions Jordan in its reconstruction of Ali’s career and impact on the world writ large, but it doesn’t have to. Simply watching Ali boast of his prowess, taunt his opponents, and prove his worth over and over again makes it clear just how much the basketball legend made himself in Ali’s image — and, as the series continues, why he still can’t claim to have had nearly the same cultural footprint as Ali, “Space Jam” or no. As “Muhammad Ali” convincingly argues, Muhammad Ali was the blueprint for talented, driven, braggadocious Black athletes like Jordan who know they’re the best and take up as much space as they damn well please. But it also meticulously makes the case for Ali as a figure that no one, not even Jordan, can replicate.
It’s a feat that “Muhammad Ali” manages to break down exactly how that happened without collapsing under the sheer volume of material at play. With a steady hand, the series details the ins and outs of Ali’s unparalleled boxing career, his significance as an unapologetic Black Muslim, and his singular place in history as a lightning rod who never shied away from the storm. It shows how Ali was fueled by a righteous fire ignited by his belief in himself, faith in Allah, and fury at Black oppression in the United States of America. It makes plain how, both on purpose and by circumstance, Ali became a global symbol of so many intersecting conflicts that he quickly became far bigger than himself.
Premiering Sept. 19 on PBS, “Muhammad Ali” dives into Ali’s uniquely complex life by following the peaks and valleys of his career through four two-hour episodes. With smart needle drops (including an early energetic montage set to Beyonce’s “Freedom”), an astonishing amount of archival footage, and interviews with sportswriters, scholars, boxers, and Ali’s children and ex-wives, “Muhammad Ali” paints a fascinating portrait of an extremely complex man. (The series technically covers his entire life, but since his final 30 years are relegated to its final 30 minutes, it’s more accurate to say it focuses primarily on his boxing career than on providing his complete biography.) Voices such as professor Gerald Early, poet Wole Soyinka, and boxer Michael Bentt are crucial to the series’ success both for their expertise in their respective fields, and how they experienced Ali as an individual and phenomenon as fellow Black men.
Written by Sarah Burns and McMahon, and narrated with gravitas by Keith David, the episodes unfold chronologically, tracing Ali’s youth as a wisecracking kid, his ascendence in the boxing scene and far beyond. “He called himself the Greatest,” David’s voiceover intones over an image of a young Ali’s smiling face, “and then he proved it to the entire world.”
That Ali captivated “the entire world” is a key point for the series, which delves into his cultural impact as an outspoken Black Muslim American man. It lays out the arc of his dedication to the Nation of Islam, from Malcom X introducing him to being exiled himself years later. Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War is also a major thread throughout, presented as a vital turning point for both him and the world’s perception of what it meant to be a patriotic American at all. It details how Ali became an icon the world over, even as he was so feared and outright hated in his home country. The series also explains the special disdain he reserved for those who continued to refer to him as Cassius Clay after he joined the Nation of Islam and renounced his “slave name” — particularly if they were, as in the case of boxing rivals such as Joe Frazier, also Black men.
Adding to the nuance of these discussions is the fact that “Muhammad Ali” does make room for the stories of men like Frazier, Sonny Liston and George Foreman, whose paths collided with Ali but were nonetheless unique unto themselves. Their matches against Ali, and the circumstances leading up to and following them, help form the structure of the series, which might otherwise become unwieldy. Each episode features at least a couple extended replays of Ali’s most pivotal matches, stitching together original footage and commentary with further insights from the present day. Context for Ali’s crueler jibes, selfishness with women, and explosive ego keeps the series from becoming too hagiographic, even as it tends towards the most generous reads of most situations.
Given how much detail “Muhammad Ali” amasses in its examination of Ali’s boxing career, it’s downright startling when the final episode ends up speeding through the years following his retirement, which saw him marry his fourth and final wife, struggle to find his place outside the ring, and battle Parkinson’s until his death in 2016. There is, perhaps, enough in this chapter of Ali’s life to fuel a whole other series, or at least another episode of this one. But it’s hard to begrudge the directors too much for rushing at the end when the rest of the series is so thoughtful and thorough, bringing fresh insight to a story so many think they already know. Whether or not you understand the breadth of Ali’s impact going into this series, you should leave it gaining a new appreciation of how he gained and wielded his influence in a way no other athlete had before, or has truly done since.
“Muhammad Ali” premieres Sunday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. on PBS.