The Greatest: Ken Burns’ Immersive ‘Muhammad Ali’ Examines the Icon From Every Angle

Muhammad Ali PBS Courtesy of John Rooney/AP Images

Muhammad Ali


Premieres: Sept. 19
Airs: Sept. 19-22 at 8pm ET

What’s It All About? Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon are directors of this immersive four-night documentary series chronicling one of the greatest athletes and most influential figures of the 20th century, boxer and activist Muhammad Ali. In tried-and-true Ken Burns style, Muhammad Ali is an engrossing examination of a man who transcended the sport he played and became a force for societal change, his ideas having more power than his right jab.

As Cassius Clay, he “shook up the world” by beating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964. As champion, he spoke out against racial injustice, and many saw him as a dangerous radical when he embraced the Nation of Islam, took the name Muhammad Ali and refused the Army draft based on his religious beliefs. “He’s really a villain to so many people at that moment,” Sarah Burns adds. Ali spent more than three of his prime boxing years in exile, with no one granting him a license to fight.

But in that time, attitudes in America had shifted. “By then, people’s feelings about the Vietnam War had changed,” Burns adds. “At the time he refused the draft, it was still a fairly popular war and had broad support in the U.S. That’s no longer the case by the early ’70s. That’s an important transition, where people see not only that he was right about Vietnam, but also they’ve seen what he’s sacrificed. They have some respect for what he was prepared to give up, and the fact that he did stick with his beliefs and that he was willing to make those sacrifices for his beliefs, I think people came around to see that as a valiant thing.”

Ali’s worldwide fame grew through the 1970s with epic fights against Joe Frazier and George Foreman, but the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease began to take hold of him in the 1980s. Ali continued to travel the world as a humanitarian and an advocate for peace, even as his health declined. When he lit the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, his frailty stood in stark contrast to his former greatness. “There’s this outpouring of sympathy and love,” Burns says. “We, as a people, correctly came around to Muhammad Ali and fully embraced him in every way later on — even if it took some people a really long time to get there.”

Muhammad Ali Episode Guide

All episodes air at 8pm ET. Check local listings.

Sunday, Sept. 19
“Round One: The Greatest (1942-1964)”
Muhammad Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — rises up the amateur boxing ranks to win gold at the 1960 Olympics. He turns professional and upsets Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion in 1964.

Monday, Sept. 20
“Round Two: What’s My Name? (1964-1970)”
Cassius Clay publicly joins the Nation of Islam and takes the name Muhammad Ali. When he refuses induction into the Army, he is stripped of his title and forced into exile. After three years, he returns to the ring, but he’s lost a step.

Tuesday, Sept. 21
“Round Three: The Rivalry (1970-1974)”
Muhammad Ali battles his fiercest rivals — Joe Frazier and the U.S. government — as he attempts to regain the heavyweight title. Ali suffers his first professional loss against Frazier, but a win in the rematch has him eyeing a bout against champ George Foreman.

Wednesday, Sept. 22
“Round Four: The Spell Remains (1974-2016)”
Muhammad Ali shocks the world by defeating George Foreman, winning back the heavyweight title and becoming the most famous man on Earth. After retiring in 1981, Ali travels the world spreading his Islamic faith, and becomes a symbol of peace and hope.

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Some things I like (in no particular order): Sports, Star Wars, LEGO, beer, 'The Simpsons' Seasons 1-13, my family and the few friends who are not embarrassed to be seen with me. Why yes, I am very interested in how much you like 'Alaskan Bush People.' #LynxForLife