Muhammad Ali was, without a doubt, the leading sports figure of the 20th century, and one of the era’s foremost personages. Through sheer force of personality he broke cultural as well as athletic norms-- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The fact that he was a black American with obscure roots in Louisville, Kentucky, who barely made it through high school and spent the last 20 or so years of his life palsied and all but mute, makes his saga all the more remarkable. We won’t see his like again.
Ali lived a big life and, now, there’s a biography that fits it. It’s “Ali, A Life,” by Jonathan Eig, all 623 pages of it, including 84 pages of acknowledgements, notes and index. It’s a heckuva book and you should read it. It’s worth the time.
Eig was a colleague of mine at the Wall Street Journal. Our paths never crossed there but they did later, when he ran a website called ChicagoSideSports, to which I contributed. Sports often are dismissed as trivial, life’s toy department, but they and our reactions to them can illuminate human affairs as well as any other endeavors. Eig showed that in his previous biographies of Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig, two other seminal American sports figures. Good reporting and insightful writing know no categorical bounds.
I never was a fan of Ali. His incessant bragging turned me off, as did the cruel ways he denigrated his opponents, most of whom were black men like himself, and his embrace of a sect of Islam that declared all white people “devils.” As I wrote in a WSJ column when he retired in 1979, and again shortly after his death last year at age 74 (you can scroll down to see my blog of June 15, 2016), boxing for him wasn’t a test of skills within a confined space and agreed upon rules but psychological warfare without limit. His disdain for conventional notions of sportsmanship was nothing less than revolutionary and reverberates still, to our continuing loss.
I suspect that others shared those views, but managed to overlook them. Ali’s refusal to be patronized struck a note that lit up the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, which Eig chronicles. Further, the boxer was so handsome (he’d say “pretty”), charismatic and downright likable that many people would forgive him anything. My stint as a full-time sportswriter began in 1983, after Ali had left the ring, and I never spoke with him, but he was a ringsider at a number of fights I covered and his arrival in the arenas never failed to illicit cheers that dwarfed anything the actual bout would elicit.
Eig’s treatment of his subject is sympathetic but unsparing, highlighting Ali’s many contradictions. Ali’s rhymes made him known as a wit but he was all but illiterate and, probably, dyslexic, someone who received a “certificate of attendance” after high school, not a diploma. He loved money and talked about it incessantly but showed little care for it once it came his way. He was a moralist who divorced his first wife because she refused to bundle up in public as his Nation of Islam’s rules dictated, yet was an open adulterer and an absent and negligent father.
Ali’s boast of being “The Greatest” stood up best in the ring, where his offensive skills and generalship were unmatched. He didn’t hit as hard as some other heavyweight champions or, even some of his contemporaries, but he more than made up for that with his grace, quick hands and speed afoot. The late Jim Jacobs, proprietor of the vast “Greatest Fights” film library and Mike Tyson’s first manager, once told me he thought Ali was the fastest fighter ever, of any weight category. That’s quite a claim for a man who stood 6-foot-3 and in his prime fought at about 215 pounds.
As Eig notes, however, some of Ali’s boxing strengths would turn into weaknesses. As a young fighter his speed and upper-body flexibility gave him all the defense he needed so he never bothered to learn such basic skills as the bob and weave or the use of his gloves and arms to block punches. As he aged and slowed he became easier to hit. That led to his discovery of his unusual ability to take a punch, the basis of his “rope-a-dope” ploy of his later bouts, especially his epic victory over the powerful George Foreman. Ali’s belief that allowing sparring partners to hit him freely because it increased his resilience further hastened the neurological problems that disabled him beginning in middle age. One only could conclude that the real “dope” in Ali’s cutely named tactic was he, not his foes.
The outlines of Ali’s life and career are well known to just about any potential reader of Eig’s book, but like in any good biography the author’s research justifies the read. The details of Ali’s free-spending ways and disdain for good financial advice are mind boggling. One story has him going with a friend to buy a Rolls-Royce and plunking down $88,000 for one (this was in 1976). On the way out of the dealership he remembered that he needed a birthday gift for his then-wife Veronica, so he got her an Alfa Romeo. When he got the Alfa home Veronica said she didn’t want it because she couldn’t drive a stick shift. Instead of returning the Alfa Ali gave it to the friend and promptly bought his wife a Mercedes instead.
A six-page transcript of an impromptu conversation between Ali and Joe Frazier, recorded in 1970 when the two ring greats were young and on speaking terms, illuminates the complex relationship between the two men. There’s an eye-opening story of how two U.S. Supreme Court justices saved Ali from prison in his draft-refusal case by fashioning a one-off verdict spurred by their realization that a not-guilty finding would justify his leaky reasons for refusing service, while a guilty one might set off riots. The court certainly does read the newspapers.
I do have a couple of nits to pick with the book. One is common to sports biographies generally, its excess of information on athletic contests long forgotten. The other is the author’s failure to adequately explain how Ali was able to continue his allegiance to Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad after the brutal murder of his close friend Malcolm X by followers (agents?) of Mr. Muhammad. But maybe there was no explanation for that.
In sum, Eig has done us a favor by writing this book and we should do him a favor by reading it. You can buy one on Amazon for $17.34, no big deal.