On the sixth page of the preface to this fabulous book, author Jonathon Eig included this sentence about Muhammad Ali: "...he (had) become one of the most despised men in America and then, presto-change-o, one of the most beloved."
Eig then proceeds to tell precisely how that happened. Eig spent four years researching and writing this biography of perhaps the most dominant sporting and cultural figure of the twentieth century. Maybe you already know the basic outline of his life....Cassius Clay was the great-grandson of a slave, his grandfather was a convicted murderer, he grew up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, turned to boxing when someone stole his bicycle, and became an Olympic champion. He then turned professional and he won and lost the heavyweight championship three times. Along the way, he converted to Islam, refused induction into the military, lost three years of the prime of his career before the United States Supreme Court upheld his right to refuse military induction. In retirement and battling numerous health issues resulting from hundreds of thousands of punches over the course of 25 year career in the boxing ring, Ali did become that beloved figure.
"Ali: A Life" tells this story in great detail that results from Eig's meticulous research that included interviews with over two hundred people closely associated with Ali over the years, including three of Ali's four wives, his children, high ranking members of the Nation of Islam, many of the hangers-on that comprised Ali's entourage over the years, and many of the people who dominated the fight game when Ali was the king of that game. This is not a "puff piece" of a biography. Eig specifically did not want this to be an "authorized" biography. It shows Ali, warts and all. In many instances, Ali was not necessarily a nice guy. He could be unspeakably cruel and harsh when talking about his opponents, he was never a faithful husband, nor was he an involved father to his children. The book doesn't shy away from any of that.
Eig writes of the milestone fights of Ali's career. The two Sonny Liston fights, the three Joe Frazier fights, the "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman. Eig's description of the events that led to the Foreman fight being staged in Zaire is great storytelling, and the description of the Ali-Frazier III, the "Thrilla in Manilla", captures the brutality of that fight and the toll that it took on both Ali and Frazier. It is terrific writing.
I knew, or felt that I knew, the story of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, but I learned a lot more in reading this book. I learned a lot about the Nation of Islam and Malcom X. I learned that the boxing game was even sleazier than I thought it was (Don King!!). But mostly I learned about Muhammad Ali. How naive he was in so many ways and how that trait cost him millions of dollars as he was fleeced by shady business deals and the practices of even his closest friends and advisers. Eig also perfectly captures the history and the culture of the times - the 1960's and -70's - that were so much a part of Ali's story.
The book also captures the personality and the sheer amazing force that was Muhammad Ali. The handsome braggart who declared himself the prettiest and the "Greatest of Allllll Timesss". The person whose favorite topic was, of course, himself. Yet in the final phase of his life a close friend and adviser to Ali (not one of the swindlers and crooks) rightfully described him as perhaps "one of the most humble people I ever knew".
As is often the case with biographies, the most fascinating part of the story comes after the subject leaves public life. Ali fought his last fight - a loss to a pedestrian Trevor Berbick - in 1981. What does a person with limited "book smarts" and marketable skills do once he leaves the limelight. Eig spends about fifty or so pages, about ten percent of the book, describing this phase of Ali's life, and they may have been the best part of the book. It is here that we see Ali devoting his life to humanitarian causes, to his religion, and to peaceful pursuits, and, yes, to things like doing product endorsements and selling his autograph and memorabilia. It is in this phase of his life that Ali became that beloved figure. There is as story told in the book of a Tanzanian man and his grandson knocking on Ali's door one day in 1982. The man just wanted to meet "the great Ali". What Ali did for that man, and his subsequent story of a "tallying angel" is a tale that equals or exceeds any sermon in any church, synagogue, or mosque that you will ever hear.
Ali's story is a great one, and how fortunate that a terrific writer like Jonathon Eig is the one who wrote it. I suppose that one can never say that something is "definitive", and there will no doubt be other writers in years to come who will take a crack at writing the Muhammad Ali story, but I cannot imagine that they will be able to do a better job than Eig has done in this book. It gets the full Four Stars from The Grandstander, and I would urge anyone to read it.
Leading up to the publication of "Ali: A Life", Jonathon Eig did a podcast called "Chasing Ali" this past summer. It was a limited series, only twelve episodes, each about 10-12 minutes in length. If you are reluctant to tackle a 500 page book, you might want to give this podcast a try. It may change your mind and really encourage you to read the book.
"Ali: A Life" is Eig's fifth book. I had read two previous ones, "Luckiest Man", a biography of Lou Gehrig written in 2005, and "Opening Day" from 2007, the story of Jackie Robinson's rookie season in the major leagues. Both were excellent, and I recommend those as well. His other two books include one about Al Capone, and another the development and marketing of the birth control pill. I'm thinking that I need to read the Capone book sooner rather than later.
Cannot write a post about Muhammad Ali without including this famous photo from the first Sonny Liston fight, when Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship....
...this photo of Marilyn and I at the Ali center in Louisville from 2016....
...and this photo, which is self-explanatory....