Muhammad Ali is one of the most dynamic athletic figures in history. He changed the sport of boxing and the role of athletes forever.
Muhammad Ali was more than a great boxer. He forced substantial social change and weaponized his fame as an athlete to combat injustice.
A new four-part PBS documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns titled Muhammad Ali will closely examine the career and life of Muhammad Ali. The documentary premieres on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8/7c.
There has never been an athlete like Ali. He transformed the sport of boxing in the ring and its modalities. He also showed the potential that athletes have to enact social and political change. Here are three ways that Ali changed boxing forever.
1. The artistry of showmanship
Before Ali, boxing weigh-ins were a necessary formality. After, they turned into theatric events where anything is possible.
The weigh-in is meant to enforce the rules of boxing. Boxers have to meet a weight requirement to ensure fairness in a matchup. Athletes used to go up on the scale and walk off. Ali turned weigh-ins into a public spectacle where he would insult opponents to shatter their confidence before boxing matches.
He psyched out Sonny Liston before both of their fights, and Ali won both by stoppage. He did the same with countless opponents, including George Foreman, before their 1974 “Ruble in the Jungle” championship bout in Zaire.
Ali played to the media and used his mouth and good looks to market himself and gain unprecedented attention. He moved boxing beyond an athletic event and turned it into entertainment.
Today’s boxers have followed Ali’s lead and weigh-ins are major media events because Ali showed everyone their potential to hype a fight.
2. Innovative boxing style
Ali broke the mold of the conventional boxer, especially for a heavyweight. Most boxers tend to be somewhat flatfooted and use the high guard for protection. Ali’s boxing style bucked all the conventions and prescribed forms.
Ali was light on his feet and bounced around the ring seductively and mesmerized and confused opponents. He was fast, elusive, and striking all at the same time. No other boxer moved like Ali in the ring before him.
He also held his hands low, which is seen as a big no-no in boxing. He relied on his reflexes to dodge opponent’s punches. His low hands made for unorthodox punching angles, which further befuddled his enemies in the ring. He had the speed to get away with it and it made him an unpredictable quantity in the ring.
Trainer Angelo Dundee embraced Ali’s originality and didn’t try to change his style. Instead, he sharpened Ali’s strengths and encouraged his unique fighting style. Ali’s break from traditional boxing forms and practices were innovative, genius, and an art all their own.
3. Using boxing as a pedestal for social change
Once becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, Ali didn’t just focus on boxing. He used his position as the most famous athlete in the world to induce social change.
As an African American who grew up in the segregated south, he was outspoken about racial inequality and joined the Nation of Islam. He supported the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X and fought racial prejudice with forceful rhetoric.
He challenged the Vietnam War by refusing induction into the armed forces and protested what he viewed as an unethical war. He was arrested, and his career was taken away for three years, and states refused to grant him a boxing license.
Ali stayed true to his principles and won a Supreme Court ruling, which allowed him to avoid being drafted into the armed forces based on his religious principles. He was a rebel and challenged a system that was immersed in racial prejudice. Ali made a difference and helped lead a social revolution that caused important change.
The four-part Ken Burns documentary, Muhammad Ali, premieres on Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8/7c on PBS.