To billions he was known by one name. The only boxer to win the heavyweight crown three times may have been even more famous after he left the ring and became a beloved and inspirational diplomat-at-large.
Muhammad Ali, the most controversial and compelling athlete in history, evolved from arguably the most reviled celebrity in America to the most revered, a magnetic figure who drew crowds across the planet for decades after he retired. “The only difference between me and the Pied Piper is he didn’t have no Cadillac,” Ali once observed.
Jonathan Eig’s exhaustive yet engaging biography, published 16 months after Ali’s death at 74, is the latest of a surprisingly small number of life histories of a rebel who changed his name and transcended his sport. “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man,” Ali said. “I had to show that to the world.”
While Thomas Hauser’s authorized biography is considered definitive, it was published in 1991. Eig’s account, which includes a detailed examination of Ali’s formative relationship with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (and his ill-fated friendship with Malcolm X), also covers the final quarter century of the champion’s life. It includes interviews with more than 200 people including Ali’s three surviving wives plus access to federal government files and voluminous taped conversations between Ali and Sports Illustrated’s Jack Olsen.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was the great-grandson of a slave, the grandson of a murderer, and the son of a hard-drinking, brawling, womanizing sign painter who beat his wife. His introduction to boxing came with his introduction to Joe Elsby Martin, a white cop in Clay’s hometown of Louisville, Ky. The two met when a distraught 12-year-old Clay reported the theft of his bicycle. Martin trained amateur fighters as a hobby, and he invited the 89-pound Clay, an indifferent student, to come to his gym. “[B]oxing triggered something wholly new in Cassius: ambition,’’ Eig writes.
Clay began his amateur career about a month later, in November 1954, and six years later would win an Olympic gold medal (as a light heavyweight) in Rome, announcing himself with brashness and braggadocio.
His original model was Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion whose victory sparked deadly race riots across the country. “I wanted to be rough, tough, arrogant,” Ali said. “[T]he nigger white folks didn’t like.”
When he fought champion Sonny Liston, a convicted robber and mob enforcer, in Miami in 1964 most of the country was rooting for Liston. “I am the greatest!,” Clay proclaimed after Liston threw in the towel. “I shook up the world.” After Ali (as he was by then was referring to himself) flattened Liston with a “phantom punch’’ in their Maine rematch the following year his primacy was undisputed.
A larger-than-life figure, Ali’s philandering was legendary throughout most of his life. He was married four times and had nine children, two of them out of wedlock. In his extramarital activities “Ali didn’t discriminate’’: “[b]lack women, white women, young women, old women, Hollywood actresses, chambermaids . . . Everyone close to the fighter knew his proclivities.’’
Had it not been for the Vietnam War Ali might well have dominated the decade. But after refusing military induction in 1967, citing his Muslim faith Ali was arrested, charged with draft evasion, stripped of his title, and banned from the ring for more than three years. To many of his countrymen Ali was an ungrateful traitor. To others he was an admirable martyr willing to sacrifice his career and freedom for his religious beliefs.
After four years of appeals the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction but his prolonged absence from the ring took an obvious toll when the 28-year-old Ali returned in 1970. The days when he could “float like a butterly, sting like a bee’’ had passed. To compensate for his flagging legs Ali adopted a risky “rope-a-dope’’ approach, letting rivals bang away at him until they tired.
That strategy helped him regain his crown from George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle’’ in Zaire in 1974 and to vanquish former conqueror Joe Frazier for the second time in the “Thrilla in Manila’’ a year later. But the rope-a-dope also subjected Ali to frightful beatings that likely caused permanent neurological damage. “It was like death,” he said after the third Frazier bout. To many observers it was clear that Ali, who had always lived a lavish lifestyle and supported a hefty entourage, was increasingly fighting largely for the money.
Yet instead of retiring Ali fought for six more years, struggling against rivals whom he once would have befuddled. Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks the following winter and ended his career at 39 with a loss to unheralded Trevor Berbick. “Father Time just got me,” he conceded.
By then the signs of Parkinson’s disease — slurred speech, trembling hands, unsteady feet — were unmistakable. But Ali’s frailty made him a sympathetic character even to his detractors. “They thought I was Superman,” he said. “Now they can go: ‘He’s human like us. He has problems.”
Ali became a beloved icon, a serene and smiling figure who spoke in a whisper. “More and more he is like a soul walking,” wrote sportswriter Frank Deford. For the rest of his life the former champion served as a goodwill ambassador and charitable fund-raiser whose efforts benefited organizations ranging from the United Nations to the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
He traveled widely to Muslim countries and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Back home, where he had come to be regarded as a global citizen with a unifying message, Ali was chosen to ignite the cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, a fitting turnabout for the man whom Richard Nixon had called “that draft-dodger.’’
After his death from septic shock in June of last year, tens of thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral procession in Louisville. “Muhammad Ali shook up the world,” President Barack Obama observed. “And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.”
By Jonathan Eig
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 623 pp., $30.John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.