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Ken Burns announces four-part Muhammad Ali documentary to premiere in September

The series paints a sweeping portrait of the Louisville native inside the ring and his larger than life personality. It is set to air on PBS in September.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — According to a release, acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns announced the premiere of 'Muhammad Ali,' a four-part documentary to air on PBS September 19-22. 

The film, which has been in development for six years, follows the life of the three-time heavyweight boxing champion and his once in a lifetime personality. 

Burns notes Ali challenged Americans’ racial prejudices, religious biases, and notions about what roles celebrities and athletes play in our society, and how the Louisville native inspired people all over the world with his message of pride and self-affirmation. 

“Muhammad Ali was the very best at what he did,” Burns said. “He was arguably America’s greatest athlete, and his unflinching insistence that he be unabashedly himself at all times made him a beacon for generations of people around the world seeking to express their own humanity.” 

Leading up to premiere, Burns will join PBS and The Undefeated, ESPN's platform that explores the intersection of sports, race and culture. 

“Muhammad Ali remains one of the most iconic figures in American history. He has been studied and modeled and quoted extensively, and his life’s story is central to understanding the modern Black athlete and this period of activism and social change that The Undefeated has been privileged to chronicle,” Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated Raina Kelley said.

The virtual events will feature sports and entertainment figures, scholars and writers, preview clips from the film, and examine Ali’s life and career in the context of America—and the world—today.

For the film, Burns and co-directors, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, drew upon a trove of archival footage and photographs, contemporary music, and the insights and memories of eyewitnesses—including family and friends, journalists, boxers and historians to create a sweeping portrait of the self-proclaimed "The Greatest of All Time." 

In early 2020, Burns and his team stopped by the WHAS11 archives to find footage of a young Ali, known then as Cassius Clay.

The series lifts the curtain behind the most dramatic and widely viewed sporting events ever, including “The Fight of the Century” and “The Thrilla in Manila,” both against his great rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle,” in which he defeated George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title that was stripped from him seven years earlier. 

While also capturing Ali’s principled resistance to the Vietnam War, his steadfast commitment to his Muslim faith, and his complex relationships with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, who profoundly shaped his life and worldview.

'Muhammad Ali' airs September 19-22 at 8 p.m. each night on PBS. The film will also be available to stream for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App.

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