Ken Burns’ announced documentary for PBS on Muhammad Ali is exciting enough, but when you think of the things that the revered filmmaker could show in the film about The Greatest, it’s hard not to go crazy wondering what he’ll capture. Ali, who passed away last June, is probably the most celebrated boxer in history and so much of his life has been put on film. But there are some really poignant benchmarks that would be worth immortalizing when it finally debuts in 2021.
So what are the best moments to put on film in the documentary? Here are five suggestions (not that Burns needs our help making a film).
Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Banks (1962)
Two years after he emerged from winning an Olympic gold medal, the young boxer began to build a professional career based on speed, stamina and athleticism. In his bout against Sonny Banks, Ali took a shot that knocked him down for a short count, but he got back up started whupping Banks head and and won the match by TKO in the fourth round.
Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston (1965)
This fight represents a turning point for the Champ personally and professionally. Fighting for the heavyweight championship, Clay went into the fight calling Liston a “big ugly bear.” At first it didn’t look good for Clay as he complained of eye problems. But he was quick and graceful and by the finish of the sixth round, Liston said that he could not keep going. He famously shouted upon winning,“I am the greatest!” and “I shook up the world!” The day after the fight, he officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali to reflect his Muslim faith. A second bout also resulted in an Ali win and one of the most famous photos in boxing history.
Refusal to Go to Vietnam (1967)
In 1967, Ali was stripped of his boxing license because he would not report to the draft board for service in the Vietnam War. He felt his Muslim beliefs prohibited him from fighting in what was increasingly being regarded as an unjust war. He took heavy criticism for his position and may have lost three of his prime years. But he remained steadfast when he said that he would not harm other people of color. “Shoot them for what?” He said. “They never called me nigger.”
Ali vs. Frazier (1971)
Boxing writers have analyzed this fight for years not only for its value to professional sports, but its political implications as well. Ali had fought his way back into the ring and the bout against the current heavyweight champ Joe Frazier had been highly anticipated. His two other fights against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena were leading up to this moment. In a thunderous fight, for which Frazier had trained fiercely, Ali was unable to carry it all the way through and lost in a unanimous decision. He did not fight Frazier again until 1974, when he won against a slower, less prepared opponent.
Ali vs. Foreman (1974)
By now, Ali was becoming a Black superhero. His defiance of the establishment and journey back into the ring was an inspiration to what had become the Black Identity Movement of the 70s. But he still had yet to recapture the heavyweight championship. The “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman was his chance. It brought attention to the fledgling African nation of Zaire, where it was being held. Ali, at 32, was thought to be past his prime, but once again he shocked everyone by basically letting Foreman tire himself out. By the end, Ali had regain the world championship.
Ali Lights the Olympic Torch (1996)
Fast forward two decades, long after The Greatest had thrown his last punch, and also after he had began to fight a tougher foe: Parkinson’s Disease, Ali had become America’s champ, as time had proven him right about Vietnam. He was invited for one of the most emotional moments in the history of the modern Olympiad. At the opening of the Atlanta Games, Ali carried the Olympic torch for its final few yards, lighting it and seemingly coming full circle for all the struggles he had been through.