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‘Muhammad Ali’ documentary Round Two: Fighting Sonny Liston in Maine, the Nation of Islam, and Vietnam

  • September 21, 2021

Ken Burns’ four-part documentary gives an expansive look at boxing legend’s life

Review: ‘Muhammad Ali’ documentary doesn’t shy away from boxer’s flaws

Takeaways from Round One:The Greatest, premiere of documentary on legendary boxer

Here’s some of the highlights from the second episode:


Influence of the Nation of Islam

Determined to be the champion he wanted to be, Cassius Clay said he wasn’t going to change the way he fought, spoke, or how he embraced his religion. Saying that the world was “on fire with hate,” Clay was seen as a threat to the world, especially among White Americans because of his link with the Nation of Islam, who sermonized racial segregation. Just months after winning the heavyweight title, the leader of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad, publicly embraced the fighter, denounced his spiritual advisor and friend Malcolm X and began the controlling of Ali’s life, both personally and professionally.

A fight … in Lewiston, Maine?

Three days before his scheduled rematch with Sonny Liston at the Boston Garden, Ali was having dinner and complained of a stomach ailment. He was rushed to a hospital and had surgery for an incarcerated hernia, postponing his training for three months. Boston’s district attorney was worried about alleged ties to organized crime with the fight’s promoter, so a pawn shop owner in Lewiston, Maine, proposed putting the bout in the town’s hockey rink, called the Central Maine Youth Center. Ali beat Liston again, this time in controversial fashion. The first-round knockout was attended by less than 2,500 spectators.

More on Vietnam

Ali was first rejected for military service because of his low aptitude scores and was classified as 1-Y, which meant a person is qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency. But with the escalation of fighting in Vietnam in 1966, the military lowered its standards for induction and Ali was reclassified 1-A: available for military service. He applied for conscientious objector status but was drafted anyway. “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs,” Ali said.

Kept out of jail

After he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000, Ali was stripped again of his heavyweight title and had his boxing license suspended by almost every state athletic commission. As a way to make money, Ali went on speaking tours. But when his case come up for review again, the Supreme Court refused to take his case. Ali should have been sent to jail immediately, but a Justice Department letter found that Ali was overheard on wiretaps when the FBI surveilled Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. After this revelation, the Supreme Court sent the case back down for further review because of the wiretap issue.

My name is not Clay

For fighters who dared the disrespect of not calling him by his Muslim name, Ali made it a point to not only punish those who did not comply but also to call them an Uncle Tom. Former heavyweight Floyd Patterson was the first who came under Ali’s ire and repeatedly called Patterson a “white American” during their fight.

One scene in the middle of the episode drove the point home. When promoting a fight against Ernie Terrell, who the World Boxing Organization gave the title to after Ali was stripped of the belt, Ali asked Terrell why he didn’t call him by his new name. 

During one promotional appearance on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” Ali proceeded to call Terrell an Uncle Tom repeatedly, like he did Patterson, who also refused to address him as Ali. “I’m going to punish you!” Ali said. And punish him he did, at times toying with him, showcasing an absolute masterclass in boxing while asking Terrell, “What’s my name?” Ali refused to knock Terrell out and finished him off with a unanimous decision.

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