This Sunday night, Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “Muhammad Ali,” will premiere on New England Public Media. The film explores the life and lasting legacy of the late heavyweight boxing champion. 

Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Ali captivated millions of fans across the world with his speed, grace, and power in the ring — and his cocky and controversial personality outside of it.  

Surprisingly, Ali was no stranger to western Massachusetts, both during and after his career. Producer Dave Fraser talked with some local people, both in and out of the boxing world, to learn more about the man known as “The Greatest.”  


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This Sunday night, Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “Muhammad Ali,” will premiere on New England Public Media. The film explores the life and lasting legacy of the late heavyweight boxing champion.

Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Ali captivated millions of fans across the world with his speed, grace, and power in the ring — and his cocky and controversial personality outside of it.

Surprisingly, Ali was no stranger to Western Massachusetts, both during and after his career. Producer Dave Fraser talked with some local people, in and out of the boxing world, to learn more about the man known as “The Greatest.”

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: On the wall at Central City Boxing and Barbell in Springfield, hangs a picture of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston in 1965. Ali trained for that fight at the Schine Inn in Chicopee.

Dean Fay, Central City Boxing and Barbell: He really revolutionized what boxing is in the ring. I mean, for a lot of years, boxing was just two guys standing in front of each other, and everything was traditional and orthodox.

He came in with an unorthodox stance, would switch it up, and, you know, me as a boxing coach, when I watch him, I go, “Jesus, everything he’s doing is wrong, but it’s working.”

Dave Fraser: Born Cassius Clay in 1947, he was no stranger to Western Massachusetts, having lived on Union Street in Springfield on and off during the early 1960s, and he would meet with fellow members of the Nation of Islam.

But for many, it is the sport of boxing that Ali is most known for.

Dean Fay: He came in and he knew how to play the mental game. He knew how to play the emotional game. And when he got in there, you know, it was not just a physical battle, it was a mental battle, and it was an emotional battle.

You know, that’s something you try to see mimicked now, but it’ll never be duplicated. Not like he did, and he did it at a time where that was unheard of.

Dave Fraser: “Iceman” John Scully has been a pivotal figure in the local boxing scene for more than 30 years. The Windsor, Connecticut, native owns and operates Charter Oak Boxing in Hartford and recalls the impact Muhammad Ali had on his life and career as a boxer.

“Iceman” John Scully, Charter Oak Boxing Academy: When I was a kid I used to read — my father had these books, three books: Sugar Ray Robinson’s book, Willie Pep’s book, and Muhammad Ali’s book. Ali’s was by far the most interesting.

And, you know, at that time, Robinson and Pep were retired, way retired. But Ali was still fighting, so we watched the fights on TV. So, you know, I was experiencing it in real time.

I could pretend to be Ali, you know, in the gym and in the fights, in my mind, I was him, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily say things, but I would pretend I was him.

Dave Fraser: In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. The former champion’s motor skills slowly declined, and his movement and speech were limited.

In spite of this, Ali remained in the public spotlight, traveling the world to make humanitarian, goodwill, and charitable appearances.

Steven Ike, Charter Oak Boxing Academy: And he walked by me and he went to the table and he started signing, started motioning people over. So, when it was my turn to meet him and get my autograph, he got up and said, “Oh no! Joe Frazier!” That’s what he calls me.

I said, “Now, I don’t know if that was a compliment or not,” because he said a lot of bad things about Joe Frazier, but it was really funny. The whole room was laughing and everything.

“Iceman” John Scully: In 1990, I met him and he was very — he couldn’t even speak that loud, but the interaction was phenomenal. We shadow boxed with each other, and it showed me that in his mind, he was very clear headed. He knew what was going on. He could express it. He just couldn’t do it loudly and he couldn’t do it energetically.

But, from things he said to me, it was very clear that he was very, very much on the ball. So that was that was a good day.

Dave Fraser: In 1991, Ali visited Springfield and Agawam, at the invitation of the Rocky Marciano Foundation. Paul Santaniello and Tony Cignoli were co-chairs of the event.

Tony Cignoli, Met Ali in 1991: This amazing luminary, this international player, one of the most well-known people in the world, stayed to sign signatures for — an autographs, on photographs, on Muhammad Ali dolls, on all kinds of stuff — it went on for hours. Every human being that was a Chez Joseph that night, 1500 people, they got an autograph.

Dave Fraser: One of the highlights Cignoli recalls was Ali’s visit to the pediatric wing at Bay State Medical Center. He was reminded of the impact that visit had just a short time ago.

Tony Cignoli: A few months ago actually, this year, the mom of one of those children was saying to Paul Santaniello, “Gosh, Paul, you may not know this, but I was there the day that you brought Muhammad Ali to visit my son at Baystate Pediatric. My son never believed that Muhammad Ali had actually come to see him.” We didn’t have a photograph. We didn’t have anything, the woman said.

Paul sent her a photograph of Muhammad Ali kissing her son. That is gigantic to that family. And that’s the kind of thing that we’ve seen everywhere. I’ve been to wakes and seen a photograph of an individual and Muhammad Ali in the casket or next to the casket. I’ve seen it laminated, still, on people’s refrigerators.

This was Muhammad Ali. And at that time, and even still now, one of the most well-known revered figures on the planet, and he came here to Springfield.