Boxing prodigy with voice of protest
A biography that looks at Muhammad Ali’s life inside and outside the boxing ring captivates Charles Cole.
The extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali cannot easily be understood, and it is no failing in best-selling author Jonathan Eig that the reader may still fail to understand once they have finished this large and comprehensive biography.
Some aspects of Ali’s character are as elusive as his young body was to his opponents when he danced all around the boxing ring (before he became an unknockoutable punch-taker). Not only did his boxing style change over the course of his career, his comments about race, religion and politics were also changeable, sometimes contradictory or uninformed.
This, along with his amusing boasting and verbal taunting of opponents was tolerated, Eig says, because he had achieved celebrityrebel status. ‘‘Like Dylan’s lyrics, he didn’t need to make perfect sense.’’
However, the heavyweight champion’s famous draft-dodging stance (‘‘I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong’’) earned him a three-year suspension from boxing, and his intentions, when he had any, were muddied by his whimsicality, and by his allegiance to the radical Nation of Islam.
Ali told friends he feared being assassinated like Malcolm X if he ever left this sect – one of the revelations that Eig has gleaned from more than 500 interviews, many conducted before Ali’s death in 2016. His clever selection of quotes and anecdotes are integrated into an exciting narrative that never lags despite the breadth of its detail.
He pulls no punches in representing the brutality of boxing, the objective of which is to ‘‘hurt, torture, and render a man unconscious’’. His descriptions of famous fights when Ali withstands beatings from the biggest punchers in the world are horrifying, yet well written, with ominous reminders throughout that repeated hard blows could be causing brain damage.
Eig’s research reveals that Ali was punched more than 200,000 times, far more than he punched back, and his speech rate slowed unnaturally in his 30s. He is rightfully shocked that Ali continued to fight because he needed the money (partly spent on divorces and bad investments), and was not discouraged by greedy people around him.
Ali gives due weight to the personal and sporting sides of the boxer’s life, all within the context of America’s changing society. From poor boy in a racially segregated Kentucky, Ali emerges as a boxing prodigy with a voice of protest, and Eig neatly explains his progress from a hated black upstart to one of the few truly iconic figures of the 20th century: ‘‘It wasn’t that Ali moved toward the mainstream but that the mainstream moved towards Ali.’’
He was indeed ‘‘the greatest’’ in his sport, and his transcendence of it can perhaps only be explained by his unique and lovable personality.