Credit: PBS / Michael Gaffney

One unexpected joy from watching the PBS documentary Muhammad Ali is watching it with young lefties who don’t know what to make of the central character, having really just gotten to know him for the first time.

Yes, they admire him. And, of course, they find him courageous, charismatic, and charming. And they’re inspired by how he defied the War Machine, risked all he had to fight injustice, and stood for what he believed in. But . . .

He was a notorious womanizer. And he betrayed Malcolm X. And he humiliated Joe Frazier with racist invective. And at one point he embraced George Wallace and other segregationists. As for those religious convictions—supposedly the bedrock of his principles—even there he was all over the map. Like a cafeteria Black Muslim, choosing which dictates he would follow.

So while he swore his allegiance to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, he continued to box even after that same Elijah Muhammad commanded him not to. And he kept his Muslim name, though Elijah Muhammad took it away.

And, really, Ben—how could you have idolized him so much? I really have no logical answer. Just had to be there, I guess. 

As you can see, I’ve got Ali on my mind. He’s been on my mind for as long as I can remember. I watch every Ali movie. Read every Ali book. Rewatch old fights. Can talk about him for hours. So, of course, I watched the PBS documentary. Great documentary. Congratulations to Ken Burns and everyone else who had a hand in making it.

Having said that, I must say this—it has a major omission. At least for me. Has to do with the gold medal Ali won at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. There’s the Ali version of what happened to that gold medal and there are the other versions, generally told by journalists.

I became aware of the Ali version back in 1975 when I read his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, cowritten with Richard Durham, a wonderful Chicago writer. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how much I loved that book when it came out. By then, I was a college student, majoring in English. Most of my peers were reading James Joyce in their spare time. And there I was, devouring a book about a boxer.

The Greatest was provocative, funny, and well-written. My favorite part was an account of a long car trip Ali took with Joe Frazier back in the early 70s. They went from Philly to New York, Joe behind the wheel. Ali taped their conversation. The transcript runs for over 20 pages and reveals the two men had more in common than you’d ever imagined. In that moment, Ali winds up being an ass to Frazier. What else is new?

The autobiography also tells the gold medal story. Goes like this . . .

It’s 1960. Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—has just returned from Rome. He’s so proud of his gold medal, he wears it all the time. He’s wearing it one day when he goes to a local restaurant with a friend. They’re denied service because they’re Black. Medal be damned.

One thing leads to another, and Ali and his friend have a fight with a bunch of white racist motorcycle toughs on the banks of the Ohio River. After Ali beats up the racists, he throws his gold medal into the river. He doesn’t want to wear it anymore. It symbolizes the racism and hypocrisy of the country he once loved.

That’s Ali’s story. At least the story Ali told in The Greatest

Fast forward to 1996. Suffering from Parkinson’s, Ali can barely talk. He’s revered by most Americans—even apparently conservative white Republicans, who once hated him for taking his stands. That year the Olympic games are in Atlanta. And the games’s organizers want to honor Ali. He lights the Olympic flame. And they give him a gold medal.

I remember watching the moment on television. NBC commentator Bob Costas announced that there’s an apocryphal tale—as in, source unknown—that Ali threw his original medal into the Ohio River to protest racism. But, Costas concluded, Ali just lost the medal. So it’s really nice of the Olympic people to give him a new one.

And I’m screaming at my TV set. It’s not apocryphal! Ali is the source of that story! It’s in his freaking autobiography! Now that he can’t talk, you’re gonna talk for him—huh, Costas?

And then as if to prove it to Costas and his millions and millions of TV viewers, I go to my bookshelf and get the book. The original hardcover copy I purchased back in 1975.

And I read the gold-medal section to my wife and friends. And I wrote about it, trying to track down Costas to at least get him to admit he chose his words wrong. I never reached him. His  spokesman told me to talk to a producer. Typical. When in doubt, throw the producer under the bus.

Here’s the thing. Yes, the story sounds improbable. And Toni Morrison, who edited the book, says it was probably fabricated. But it’s Ali’s story. He never disavowed it. At least, there’s no evidence of him having disavowed it. In fact, he was still repeating that story in the last years of his life.

And so, if we’re going to talk about Ali’s gold medal, you have to at least mention that he claimed to have thrown it in the Ohio River. Or you don’t talk about it at all. As Ken Burns chose to do.

In an interview, Burns says he thinks Ali never threw that gold medal into the river. And he didn’t mention it in the documentary cause there’s only so much time—even in a documentary that’s eight hours long. Fair enough.

So all those young people—lefties including—discovering Ali through the documentary will never know the gold medal story even exists. Or the autobiography (also unmentioned). Or the movie based on that autobiography. Starring Ali himself. Featuring a title song performed by George Benson. Later covered by Whitney Houston.

I could go on and on. Like I said, I’ve got Ali on my mind. He’ll probably be there for the rest of my life.