In the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali may have been a driven competitor, determined to win no matter what. At home, however, he was “sweet and cuddly,” according to daughter Rasheda Ali.
“I think a lot of that had to do with my grandmother, Momma Bird, who is the greatest person you want to meet. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body. You can’t take that sweet man out of the boxer.”
In the Ken Burns documentary, “Muhammad Ali,” viewers get to see another side to the man who could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” “Daddy was a gentle giant, for sure,” Ali says. “He loved for us to play games with him and read the Qur’an to him. And he did shed a tear at home when we would read something that really resonated with him.”
Still, the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay had a side that tested his reputation as “the greatest.” He refused to be drafted into the Army and was stripped of his title. He couldn’t box for more than three years, was found guilty of dodging the draft and became the subject of a Supreme Court case that said an appeal board did not give a reason for denying him conscientious objector status. The attention gave him an identity beyond sports.
Closer to home, family members were rocked by his infidelities, marriages and out of wedlock children.
“There were a lot of people around my father that weren’t good for him,” Rasheda Ali says. “Daddy was a good-spirited person but he made mistakes and he always owned up to them. Naturally, we were more forgiving and we kind of understood the circumstances that my dad was under were unique in nature.”
In the limited PBS series, Burns shows the boxer through the ups and downs of his life and career.
Michael Bentt, a former heavyweight champion, says Ali was surrounded by people “who live off other people. They kept him boxing because they wanted to make money off him.”
Rasheda Ali says her father probably would have boxed long after he did if he hadn’t been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. “He loved it so much. My dad couldn’t say goodbye to boxing. Boxing had to say goodbye to him.”
Like Bentt, she believes his supporters wanted him to continue “because he was basically their ATM.”
Because he started at such an early age (he was boxing at 12), Ali had the ability to play with the sport’s conventions. “What Muhammad Ali did in the ring you can’t teach,” Bentt says. “You are not taught to drop your hands and lean back. He crafted his own style.”
Ali also used lessons he learned from his friendship with Malcolm X, Bentt adds. “He expressed that in a physical way.”
Burns says Ali had a confidence that served him in and out of the ring. “He (was) always aware that he (was) guided by something bigger than himself. And that permitted him a kind of exhalation of the norms.”
Even though he was in a very masculine sport, Ali was able to spar with gender. “He really epitomizes a new thing,” Burns says. “Part of that is the audaciousness of being himself: ‘I have 182 amateur fights. I have 22 professional fights and I am pretty as a girl.’”
Rasheda Ali says it wasn’t always easy being his daughter because many were looking at every move she made. “I can’t make a mistake because I was not just Rasheda. I am Rasheda, Muhammad Ali’s daughter, who made the mistake. As I got older, I started to embrace the pressure but it wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
Now, as she sees his life in context, she understands how he was able to accomplish what he did.
Burns says he was one five men (the others: The Beatles) who understood the secret ingredient of the last half of the 20th century. “It’s the four-letter word that the FCC permits us to use but none of us knows how to use it very well or talk about,” Burns says. “And that’s love.”
“Muhammad Ali” begins Sept. 19 on PBS.