‘Maybe, he wasn’t the problem. Maybe, I was’: How Muhammad Ali stayed true to himself on his path to becoming an icon

(CNN) Muhammad Ali scoops up his baby daughter Maryum and explains a concept that she couldn’t possibly understand at such a tender young age: "Your daddy is fighting for you," he is reported as saying in 1968. "Someday, you’re going to be able to walk with your head high and not beg for a job. And you don’t even know it."

Between 1960 and 1981, Ali fought 61 professional heavyweight bouts in a glittering career that made him a global icon, but arguably his biggest fights were outside of the ring. His remarkable life story is once again in the spotlight, the subject of "Muhammad Ali" — an expansive, four-part, eight-hour documentary by the renowned filmmaker Ken Burns, airing on PBS.

"He intersects with all of the things that not only were the most important issues of that day," Burns told CNN Sport , "He’s so much bigger than boxing. Sports and the role of sports and society, Black athletes and race and religion and faith and politics and war. There isn’t a button that he doesn’t push, either deliberately or accidentally — and he’s so amazing."

But the crux of Burns’ narrative is that he wasn’t always revered, in fact, for many years in the United States, Muhammad Ali was dismissed, feared and even despised.

The latter-day image of Ali is that he was flamboyant, loquacious and audacious. A larger than life character who was beloved.

"The biggest misconception about Muhammad Ali is that everybody loved him," explains ESPN’s Howard Bryant, who is featured in the film. He told CNN Sport, "One of the greatest misconceptions about Ali is that White people loved him from the start. They didn’t. That he belonged to everyone from the start. He didn’t."

One of Ali’s daughters, Rasheda, told CNN Sport that her father’s life was far from the fairytale that today’s generation might assume it to be. "His life was in danger. He had death threats placed upon him because a lot of people didn’t like him," she says.

"They didn’t respect him. They thought he was unpatriotic. There was a lot of racism at that time."

From his humble beginnings in Louisville, Kentucky, Burns charts the rise of a promising — if unvarnished — athlete, who was inspired by the civil rights movement of the time.

Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Ali was almost the same age as Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. According to the film, Ali was said to be haunted by the image of Till’s mutilated corpse, which his mother allowed to be photographed in an open casket at his funeral. Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight gold medal. After winning the Olympic gold medal in 1960 and turning professional later that year, Ali often listened to Louis Farrakhan’s 1961 song, "A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell," but he knew to tread carefully on race because offending his group of all-White sponsors in Louisville might have damaged his chances […]

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