was Muhammad Ali? I'm not talking about his jabs in the
boxing ring, or his killer hooks. I'm talking about his
personality. I'm talking about his charisma.
"Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami" is now available on DVD.
I've never been a boxing fan, though I can admire the technique and skill that goes into a fight. Athletes who train in boxing are amazingly strong, because it's a demanding and physical sport. Not only do you have to move around, but you have to throw punches with precision and be able to take getting punched yourself. Cassius Clay was an incredible fighter in the ring. Fast and smart, he could trick the best of them and lay them out on the mat. But Clay, who would later convert to Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali, also won the public over with his charisma. He was an all-around star athlete.
This PBS special is an eye opener on the early days of Ali's boxing career. Frankly, I've always been mixed about Ali's public character. Growing up during the '70s, my friends and I already knew who "The Greatest" was. He quite simply was the greatest boxer around. It seemed that whenever Ali was on-camera, he was boasting and taunting. I guess his personality hadn't changed much since the early-1960s! What is very good about this PBS documentary is that it shows Ali in a different light. He's a boaster and taunter, all right, but he shows a side of him I've never seen. He's a charming and witty person who I believe has a heart of gold. Before his salad days in the ring, he's shown driving around Miami talking about where the rich people live. This is Ali (then known as Clay) being humble. He knows where and how he grew up and is looking to change that.
Ali trained in a small gym in Miami. In the late-1950s, racial division was running high in the United States. By the time Ali's career started taking off with his fight against Sonny Liston in Miami, racial conflict was high. Ali was able to overcome much of that racism, winning over white fans. His fight against Liston, who was perhaps the Mike Tyson of his day, was highly touted. Ali taunted the stockier, meaner Liston, and could've ended his young boxing career in that fight by being knocked out. But Ali backed up his words with his fists and won.
It was Ali's conversion to the Nation of Islam that transformed him into the man we became familiar with. Many of his backers were afraid he'd alienate the white audience he won over, as well as those in the black community. We see Ali hanging around Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and footage of Ali siding with Elijah. Controversy continued with Ali as he avoided being drafted into the Vietnam War. He soon found himself with even more admirers for his boxing skills and pacifism, at least according to the filmmakers.
This is more of a "greatest hits" (excuse the pun) package than an exhaustive bio on the fighter. There's nothing wrong with this approach, because we get a good feeling about the man himself, despite his controversies. The pacing is quick. The show is well-made and it's nice to hear from the people who were there to see Ali's triumphs both in and out of the ring. It goes to show that Ali was one of the most influencial and charismatic athletes of the 20th century.
Special thanks to Brigid D'Arcy and Click Communications
Photos: © Artwork PBS. All rights reserved.
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