If Muhammad Ali hadn't existed, you couldn't make him up. No fiction character on this scale would be believable. It would be a cartoon.
The only athlete who comes close is Babe Ruth -- but Babe Ruth never aligned himself with an outlaw counterculture and made shocking pronouncements about the U.S., imperialism, and racism.
Ali was a mass of contradictions. He craved material wealth, yet gave away money as if he had an unlimited supply. He was a self-absorbed egomaniac, but incredibly generous, not only with his money but with himself.
He made one of the most important political statements of his generation, one that had profound consequences to his career, one that inspired countless others to follow his path -- yet he never uttered another political statement in his life, and was spectacularly oblivious to world events.
With his own words and his self-constructed image, Ali intentionally and purposefully fashioned a new image of blackness that shocked and thrilled African Americans and white America alike. Yet after that era, he never uttered a word about any racialized issue again, whether apartheid in South Africa or the police beating of Rodney King.
Ali lived to cultivate his image and to be The Greatest -- but put himself on what must be the longest, saddest, most hideous downslope in professional sports history.
Jonathan Eig brings you all of Ali, the good, the great, the bad, the awful, the crazy, the amazing. Some parts will inspire awe. Some head-shaking disbelief. Some disgust. Eig doesn't shy away from any of it.
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Growing up, Ali had learning disabilities, and severe dyslexia. This deficit may have been a source of unusual strength in spatial abilities and timing -- two of his boxing abilities that were almost unparalleled in the sport.
When Ali was a young, up-and-coming fighter, the sportswriter Dick Schaap took Ali (then Clay) to Harlem to meet Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the young Ali's heroes. Robinson could hardly be bothered to look at his fans. Ali vowed that when he was famous, he would never treat fans that way.
It was one promise he made good on. For his entire career, Ali would shake hands and sign autographs and pose for pictures and make himself available to everyone, at any time, with no thought to his own privacy or the value of his time. Here's one of many illustrations.
One day in 1970, a white Philadelphia schoolteacher named Marc Satalof asked his wife if she wanted to go for a drive and see if they could find Ali's new home. . . . Ali was in the living room watching TV with friends. Satalof introduced himself and asked Ali if he would visit his school, Strawberry Mansion Junior High, in an all-black, gang-infested section of North Philly. Ali agreed without hesitation. He showed up on the day he said he would and spoke to several groups of students. When Ali complained he was getting tired, Satalof thought the boxer was politely suggesting he was ready to leave. But Ali said no, he didn't want to quit; he hoped instead to take a short nap and then come back to the school and address the rest of the students. Ali proposed a trip to Satalof's house, which was near the school. While Ali was napping, one of Satalof's friends knocked on the door, checking to see if he was okay, because it was unusual to see Satalof's car in the driveway in the middle of the day. Satalof asked the neighbor to be quiet because Muhammad Ali was sleeping in the next room. The neighbor laughed. If you're cheating on your wife, the neighbor said, don't worry, I won't tell anyone. No, really, Satalof said, it's Muhammad Ali. At that moment, Ali, having heard the conversation, stormed out of the bedroom, throwing air punches and pretending to be mad. After signing an autograph for Satalof's friend, Ali went back to the school and stayed three hours, until every student had a chance to hear him speak and every request for an autographed had been filled.This book is full of stories like this -- one of the most famous people in the world, being generous and kind, with not a single camera rolling or reporter taking notes. In fact, the 1996 Olympic torch lighting, when the aging Ali, silenced by Parkinson's syndrome, thrilled the world one last time, begins with exactly that kind of generosity.
That's a contradiction, too. Ali had an absolutely insatiable need for attention. In his younger days, his constantly running mouth, especially his political and racial statements, brought loud, sustained booing wherever he went. He loved that. Later, chants of A-LI A-LI A-LI replaced the boos, and he loved that even more. But he didn't seek publicity for his many acts of kindness and generosity.
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Ali underwent the most famous name-change and religious conversion in US history. And the media refused to use his chosen name! Think of that. Today that's reserved for Twitter trolls, but then it was the New York Times and CBS. The World Boxing Association stripped Ali of his championship title because of his political views. Only for that and no other reason.
Ali should have been a multi-millionaire many times over, but his talent and celebrity supported a huge entourage, and he was utterly unable to say no to any request, investment scheme, or attempt to exploit him. His trust and unshakable belief in people's good intentions drained millions into other people's pockets. Don King and Herbert Muhammad (son of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of Nation of Islam) both enriched themselves massively at Ali's expense. Ali was childlike in his naivete, and remained that way all his life.
After Ali reaches the pinnacle of his fighting career, and begins an impossibly long downward trajectory, the story becomes a human train wreck from which you cannot look away. I was cringing. I was mortified for him. I was horrified. I mentally begged him to retire. But although I lost count of how many times Ali said he was retiring, he kept going -- from bad to worse to mind-boggling. Every time I thought it couldn't get any worse, he sunk lower.
It wasn't just bad boxing. It was the inability to box, because his brain was so damaged. It wasn't a once-great ballplayer batting .105. It was that ballplayer forgetting how to swing a bat, while the whole world watched.
He should have been prevented from fighting. It would have been easy to do. His long-time ring doctor quit, refusing to participate further in the destruction of Ali's brain. Madison Square Garden said they would never book another Ali fight -- for the same reason. But too many people were making far too much money off Ali, so they let it continue, long past the time when it was obvious Ali's brain was irreparably damaged.
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My interest in Ali has always been political, and the intersection of politics and sports, which (as wmtc readers know) I love and am fascinated with. I am not a boxing fan by any means. Not only don't I like to watch boxing, I detest the sport politically and ethically, knowing how it seduces poor boys with the promise of fame and fortune, then spits them out with their brains battered. So no, I am not a fan. But Eig's descriptions of the matches are brilliant -- the action unfolds before your eyes. Some of the descriptions of the famous matches are nothing short of epic. I learned a lot about the sport itself, both the athleticism it demands and the corrupt culture that surrounds it.
(As an aside, I also learned about the political context of the famous Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, how it was financed by the corrupt and murderous dictator Joseph Mobutu. We've seen two documentaries about this fight -- "Soul Power" and "When We Were Kings" -- and neither contained one word about this!)
Back in January, I declared this year my "Year of the Biography". Of the eight bios on my list, I read only three, but they were massive: Arnold Rampersad's biography of Jackie Robinson, David W. Blight's bio of Frederick Douglass, and this one. All three books were excellent. But Eig's writing is so lively and entertaining, and Ali's story so compelling, that Ali: A Life is easily the best book I read this year -- one of the best nonfictions I've read in a long time.