My Thoughts on the ‘Muhammad Ali’ PBS Documentary

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble. Ahhhhhh!” This catchphrase from the Greatest boxer of all-time, Muhammad Ali, still ring in my ears as I write about the legend.”

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble. Ahhhhhh!” This catchphrase from the Greatest boxer of all-time, Muhammad Ali, still ring in my ears as I write about the legend. After 8-hours of rarely seen footage, insightful interviews from those people who knew him best, and catchy music and news events highlighting the era and period in which the Greatest grew up in, the Muhammad Ali documentary on PBS (American public television) is a real knockout. There is too much television and movies out there to choose from especially with the streaming services but the Muhammad Ali documentary, recently released in September of 2021 is worth a watch.

Eight hours in total length, split into four ‘rounds or parts, the documentary chronicles the entire 74-years old in which Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay walked among us mere mortals from his childhood in Louisville to his rise to boxing stardom dating from Rome to New York City to Manila to his old age, where he sadly struggled through the progression of the fatal Parkinson’s disease. Ali was a man who was almost too unreal to believe he had existed because of all he said, accomplished, and did during his life.

If you looked in an English idiom dictionary for the expression, ‘larger than life’, a picture and short description about Muhammad Ali should be there as well. The swagger he had when he walked in a room, his way with words as a poet and the ability to dress down his opponent with insults as powerful as his punches, and his commitment to not only his religion but the people around him such as a friends, family, and even random strangers who he would often give money, food, or anything they needed when they were going through a tough time.

Ali was not just talented in the ring, but he was also extremely intelligent, wise beyond his years, and able to be charismatic with many people he would meet. Most boxers would keep to themselves back in the 1960s or 1970s and would not embrace trash-talking, denigrating their opponents, or making bold claims that they weren’t sure would come to fruition. Muhammad Ali did the exact opposite and he built up a reputation to the point where billions of people knew who he was from America to Africa and from Asia to South America. His rants became legendary, and his diatribes were shown to garner a huge amount of press to sell his fights. In my view, he made boxing a global sport and he connected with all people regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. He had love for everybody except for the men he would fight against.

The difference with Muhammad Ali compared to other braggart boxers is that he would often back up his predictions by making them real especially in his early days beating boxers like Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. He would not only predict that he would win his fight, but he specifically predicted the round in which his poor opponent would be knocked out. His legend grew the more he talked trash and made fun of his opponents and he backed it up in the ring by winning constantly. If he were not Muhammad Ali in terms of talent, hard work, and pure drive to be great, as a boxer, he would have faded away quickly, He simply was a once-in-a-century talent who kept boxing as a world sport in his era and it was the height of its popularity as a sport in America.

Ali, perhaps because of his family upbringing, his change of religion to Islam, or because of an innate sense of right and wrong was a plain-spoken activist who didn’t mince words. He was against racism in all its forms, was against the Vietnam War, and stood up for the poor and disenfranchised people around the world who were without the same opportunities that he had been able to take advantage of because of his boxing talent. While he was a devout member of the group, the Nation of Islam, and had his differences with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., because of his affiliation with that group, he often strived to be a critical thinker on issues of race and religion and would dutifully follow his conscience often when expressing himself in public, as he often did in the national and global spotlight.

Sadly, Muhammad Ali, in pursuit of fame, fortune, and women, made serious mistakes along the way to become the greatest boxer of all-time. The constant time spent on the road, the brutal training regimens, the temptations he succumbed to with extramarital affairs, and even his disregard for friendships such as with Malcolm X or neglecting his wife(wives) or children due to his first love of boxing. He was an imperfect man who committed many sins as he puts it in the documentary.

However, even his sins did not stop him from putting in the work to commit more good deeds than sins throughout his life and for which when it came down to his estimation of himself as a Muslim at the end of his life, he felt comfort knowing he committed more rights than wrongs upon his death. The difference too with Ali is that he knew he had done wrong and tried to make amends later in life for his misdeeds. He apologized and atoned for his womanizing, unnecessary insults of other boxers, and his previous disavowal of friends and family like Malcolm X when they conflicted with his loyal membership to the Nation of Islam.

When I think about this documentary, the way it was able to catalog every major event in Ali’s life while simultaneously describing how he must have felt or acted the way he did during those pivotal moments in his life make this documentary the greatest one made about ‘The Greatest’ himself. Few documentaries go into that much detail, use relevant interviews and narration, while maximizing the quality of historical footage to draw the viewer in. If you are new to the good works of Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, Lynn Novick, David McMahon, and the rest of his wonderful documentary team, he is one of America’s greatest filmmakers in this genre.

Having done previous documentaries on ‘Baseball’, ‘Jackie Robinson’, and the other famous American boxer, ‘Jack Johnson’, you can tell that Ken and his team feel as comfortable documenting American sports history as much as his other documentaries on American politics and war history too. The sheer years of effort it takes to create an eight-hour long documentary like this one on ‘Muhammad Ali’ shows you how dedicated to the craft of documentary making Ken Burns and his team are. They have been doing it for over forty years now and it seems like they get better and better with each new documentary. If this documentary is the first you’ve seen by Ken Burns, do yourself a favor and watch the other sports history documentaries and check out his other ones on other aspects of American history.

What I enjoy most about documentaries about sports or political figures done by Ken Burns and team is that they highlight major events, victories, and defeats of that person or the team, but they also make sure to put that figure or people fit in with the swirling tide of history and timeline through the music soundtrack, the relevant footage, and the interviews with those people from the same era or who know that era in history.

The ‘Muhammad Ali’ documentary is not just about ‘The Greatest’ himself but about the times he lived in as an American and how he changed the country just as he was changed by the country himself. He influenced America more than most figures throughout the 20th century and will be remembered by future generations. He will be known not simply as the greatest boxer of all-time but also as a man who stood up for his principles, fought or did not fight for what he believed in, and enacted positive social changes by helping the poor, the disenfranchised, or even the stranger on the street.

He was a larger-than-life figure who transcended both sports, politics, and culture, and this ‘larger than life’ documentary pays great homage to one of the most celebrated and remembered Americans in the nation’s 246-year long and counting history.

Sunset Over The Monuments

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Arlington, Virginia, USA

Theodore Roosevelt Island

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Theodore Roosevelt Island; Washington, District of Columbia, United States

Doubleday Field

Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Cooperstown, New York; Doubleday Field

Cuisine Spotlight – Pão de Queijo

“Brazilian cheese bread or ‘Pao de queijo’ is a delicious snack that is truly delightful to have whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or even at night.”

Brazilian cheese bread or ‘Pao de queijo’ is a delicious snack that is truly delightful to have whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or even at night. While often served as part of a traditional Brazilian breakfast (café da manha), you can have it as an appetizer, a snack, or even as a side dish with some meals depending on your preference. I do believe it is best served with come coffee or tea to wash down the bread. It really is a traditional Brazilian staple with interesting ingredients as well as a deep and culturally rich history to go with this practical dish. You should be aware though that it is hard to have just one of the cheese bread pieces and it is likely you will eat six or seven in one try.

While there are various forms of cheese bread, the Brazilian ‘pao de queijo’ is perhaps the most famous in the world and for which has the longest history. Originally from the state of Minas Gerais, ‘pao de queijo originates back to the early 18th century when many enslaved African people who worked in the local mines would make the bread as a staple food while migrating from the Northeast of Brazil to the Southeast such as the historical city of Ouro Preto in the modern-day state of Minas Gerais.

The mining cycle and lifestyle caused staple food production to increase such as for rice, beans, cornmeal, pork, but also cheese. In Minas Gerais, farmers and cooks would use starch or cassava as a substitute for wheat to bake as a wheat substitute for form the bread for the cheese. With cheese chips or pieces mixed into the cassava or starch, the cheese bread would be made for the farmers by the slaves or for themselves as miners as they mined for gold in the colonial era.

Wheat never took hold in terms of forming the bread needed especially since the climate was not suitable for Northeast Brazil, which was instead imported from Europe later on for the King and his royal adherents. Instead, cassava tuber was used as a substitute in making ‘pao de queijo’ as a staple food. The cheese would be grated and hardened inside the cassava flour and rise after being baked in the oven to become the popular cheese bread food it is today across Brazil.

Today, there are many different variations on ‘pao de queijo’ making it a fun dish to make depending upon your preference of starch, of cheese, and of temperature to bake it at. You can use both sweet or sour starch or cassava as is traditionally done. You also can choose from different types of cheeses as well from mozzarella to parmesan to cheese which is native to the state of Minas Gerais and has its own unique flavor. Adding egg to the recipe also adds flavor and needed color to the final product as well. Also, as an option, you can smear a bit of fat whether it is butter, margarine, lard, or vegetable oil on the cheese bread to make it more elastic and stretchable to eat pieces of at a time.

Some recipes can add meat inside with the cheese or potato as well although I confess that this kind of ‘pao de queijo’ is not that popular. I think it is important to keep in mind that the cheese can also be pre-boiled to add to its overall flour before baking too although it is not necessary. As for the cheese, it is good to use the traditional ‘Minas’ cheese if you’re in Brazil but if you don’t have it available, mozzarella or parmesan are good substitute options to have.

You cannot have ‘pao de queijo’ without having the texture down, so you need to have the cassava starch as part of the main ingredients. The balls need to be an inch or two (3-5 cm in diameter) and need to be in that form before you bake them. Unlike other cheese breads, you are using unleavened bread for this snack dish so the dough will expand due to small pockets of air that are left to grow during the baking process. Tapioca starch is also used for the ‘pao de queijo’ as well and it is quite common to add dipping sauces or additions like catupiry (Brazilian cream cheese), Guava sauce, dulce de leche (caramel sauce) as well to have as a dessert.

When you come to Brazil, you will find this popular snack almost everywhere including convenience stores, delicatessens, restaurants, snack bars, etc. The locals will encourage to at least have a few of them and sometimes up to eight or ten. It is the perfect snack to have with friends, with family, or over a coffee with a new acquaintance. A simple yet delicious staple food of Brazilian cuisine: You haven’t experienced all of Brazil until you have had a bite of ‘pao de queijo.’

Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?

The Maracanã

“One of the most famous football stadiums in the world and which was featured in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.”

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Maracana Stadium or Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cultural Spotlight – Capoeira

Capoeira is a very unique cultural aspect of Brazil and one that while it has its origins elsewhere has become very Brazilian in its customs, history, and usage. With different elements of dance mixed in with parts of martial arts, Capoeira is unlike any other form of movement in the Western Hemisphere. Not only is Capoeira based on dance and martial arts, it is also formed from a foundation of acrobatics and music to accompany the many movements. The amount of exercise involved in becoming a true Capoeira artist means that you will definitely break a sweat while getting physically fit if you intend to practice this unique art form on a daily basis.

Capoeira is known for having its origins in different parts of west Africa but was developed after the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade in the 16th century. After enslaved Africans were first brought to Brazil by the Portuguese settlers, it became a way for the slaves to stay physically fit and strong if they ever decided to flee and run away from their slave masters. If they wanted to collaborate and rebel, they could use their capoeira skills to help defend themselves from possible attack or capture from the slave masters as well.

Capoeira uses the full body and so you can use both your arms, hands, legs, and feet to do a large number of movements. The movements are acrobatic, complex, and fluid and based often off of the music and rhythms that are being played for the dancers. Hands often stay on the ground as inverted kicks are flown in the air. The ginga is the focal point or main focus of any capoeira movement and is usually the beginning of any fluid kick or handstand to come.

The capoeiristas’ are those martial artists or dancers who perform the movements often with other capoeirista while being surrounded by a group of observers who are either playing music or encouraging the capoeiristas on to continue their rhythmic movements to match the other participant. The origin of the word ‘capoeira’ comes from the Tupi language words of ka’a (forest) and pau (round) referring to the low-lying vegetation areas where fugitive African slaves would hide from their masters when they would try to make an escape. Most of the African slaves who started capoeira in Brazil were originally from Angola.

After the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the new republic outlawed capoeira throughout the country. If you were caught practicing capoeira anywhere in public, practitioners would be thrown in jail, tortured, or even killed. This prohibition continued throughout most of the 20th century even if it was sometimes tolerated in universities and in private places during times of both democratic and military rule in Brazil. Still though, the Afro-Brazilian communities especially in the Northeast kept capoeira alive during these forbidden times and even renamed capoeira to be called ‘Luta Regional Baiana’ which means the regional fight of Bahia in order so that practitioners could practice their form of capoeira without outside interference.

In the recently enslaved communities of Quilombos who had liberated themselves to be free and self-reliant in parts of Brazil during the 18th and 19th centuries, capoeira became a way of defending themselves in case of war or conflict with Portuguese colonial troops or Brazilian soldiers. By using the martial art to dodge potential attacks and/or captures, the Quilombos were a formidable fighting force who used capoeira to defend their communities and their land at often great cost.

The key to capoeira from my own observations in Brazil is to never stop your movements and to always be thinking of how to dodge, kick, sweep, and even take down your opponent. The ginga movement of being fluid is both an attack and defense mechanism to make sure you are constantly ready to either take your opponent by surprise or to evade their own attack. Most attacks in capoeira are done with leg sweeps, swirling kicks, or knee strikes but can also involve the elbow or head. However, most forms of capoeira today are done as simulations and to train for a game or a competition rather than war or actual combat.

To the public who view capoeira in a non-violent lens, these presentations in the roda or circle are just for show and involve games of aerial acrobatics rather than being more about striking or deflecting physical attacks. The circle involves musical instruments specifically for the game between capoeiristas and there is singing, and dancing involved with everyone in the circle participating at some point. Capoeira instruments include the berimbau, which can be played from very slow to very fast depending upon the rhythms requested as well as other instruments such as pandeiros, atabaques, agogo, and the ganza. The row of musicians in the roda (circle) is called a ‘bateria’ and the touch of the berimbau instrument in particular fuels the speed, aggressiveness, or style of the capoeira game.

Similar to Carnaval and Feijoada, Capoeira is one of Brazil’s most famous and impressive exports to the rest of the world. Every year, thousands of tourists come from around the world including serious non-Brazilian practitioners travel to different parts of Brazil to practice its most famous martial art. The capoeira masters (mestres) often teach the Portuguese language in addition to the movements of capoeira so the foreign student can really immerse themselves in the cultural background and history of this traditional martial art. The capoeira demonstrations are perhaps more acrobatic than physical when in public but in private, you would have to guess that it is much more intense and much more serious in terms of displaying physical prowess than what is shown to the public.

After the 1970s, this unique part of Brazilian culture was on its way to not only being accepted by the people but being embraced and taught to the next generations. A powerful way of resolving conflict, promoting social cohesion, and learning about physical fitness, capoeira is great at bringing the community together in a positive way while showing how important it is to recognize and value past traditions. From the roots of West Africa to groups of escaped Afro-Brazilian slaves whose cultural practices were almost extinguished over the centuries due to subjugation, maltreatment, and neglect, capoeira like their rights to human freedom and basic dignity made a powerful comeback which is still being fought for and advanced to this day.

Pelourinho

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Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Pelourinho; Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Museum of Japanese Immigration in Brazil

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Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Historical Museum of Japanese Immigration; São Paulo, Brazil