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


The documentary "Muhammad Ali" premiered Sunday on PBS and continues with three more segments, each airing through Wednesday.

The four-part series is directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon and chronicles Ali’s life from a Louisville youth looking to find his way in the world to the global icon he became as a result of his boxing, beliefs and courage as he dealt with a debilitating disease. The rest of the segments will start at 8 p.m. ET.

Here are some of the highlights from the first night, which begins with Ali's introduction to boxing at age 12.

INSIDE LOOK: 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


The beginning

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr’s journey into the boxing world started when he was 12 after the bicycle he shared with his brother, Rudy, was stolen outside of a downtown Louisville community center, which was holding a home appliance show. The brothers parked the bike and went inside because it was raining, only to find the new red Schwinn gone when they went back outside. Cassius vowed to beat up the person responsible, and six weeks after meeting boxing coach Joe Martin, he had his first amateur bout.
A trio of U.S. boxers wear gold medals at the Olympic village in Rome, Sept. 6, 1960. From left to right: Wilbert McClure of Toledo, Ohio, light middleweight; Cassius Clay of Louisville, Kentucky, light heavyweight; and Edward Crook of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, middleweight. AP

Influence of Emmett Till

Shaping young Clay was the 1955 murder of Till, who was killed after allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s mother allowed his casket to be opened. Clay, a teenager, was six months younger than Till, and began to see race in a different light, especially when it came to his place in the world. Clay thought that boxing was a way to get people past focusing on color and instead on the human doing the actions.

Fear of flight

Clay was so afraid of flying that he bought a parachute at an Army-Navy store just in case disaster struck on the flight on the way to the Olympic trials in San Francisco before the 1960 Rome Olympics. He even contemplated turning pro in order to avoid flying. Before the return trip home to Louisville after winning the trials, he pawned a watch and took a train instead of boarding another airplane.

Underwater jokester

In 1961, Cassius, 19, posed for pictures in Life Magazine while in Miami to train for a fight. While training in a swimming pool, Clay told photographer Flip Schulke that he trained in the water by throwing punches as a means of weight and resistance training. It turns out that Cassius had never done any type of training in the pool, a fact that Schulke did not find out until three years after the Sept. 8, 1961, issue. As far as subsequent pool work in later years to enhance his training: that also was non-existent.


The documentary touches on some of the important figures during Ali’s first two decades of life. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, who Clay later had a public falling out with, and boxer Sonny Liston are featured. Liston’s rough beginnings turned into a remarkable story of overcoming adversity. Liston, who by all accounts was illiterate, did not know when he was born, and got involved deep with organized crime during his boxing career.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Muhammad Ali': Takeaways from Round One: The Greatest, premiere of documentary on legendary boxer

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