ALI – A LIFE by Jonathan Eig
There can be but a handful of people who don’t know anything at all about him, for those very few:
Muhammad Ali, who died in 2016, was an American professional boxer, three time heavyweight champion of the world. He is regarded as one of the most iconic sporting figures of the last century, if not of all time. He was a larger than life and often a controversial figure both inside and outside the ring.
“His great-grandfather was a slave. His grandfather was a convicted murderer who shot a man through the heart in a quarrel over a quarter. His father was a drinker, a bar fighter, a womaniser, and a wife beater who once in a drunken rage slashed his eldest son with a knife. These are the roots of Muhammad Ali, who was born with what he called the slave name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, and who ultimately became one of the most famous and influential men of his time.”
There have been many books written about Muhammad Ali, but Ali – A Life, by Jonathan Eig is the most comprehensive biography of Muhammad Ali that has ever been published.
Eig conducted over 600 interviews with those who new Ali best and has given us a captivating, comprehensive and well-balanced portrait of the man, neither idolatry nor sensationalistic in treatment.
One gets the whole Ali, from his childhood, his boxing career, his private and family life. One learns too of the many causes and issues he championed such as his involvement with the Nation of Islam, which had a profound effect on him.
These two paragraphs from the book, maybe more than any others, provide so much insight into Ali’s formative make-up:
“While his spelling and punctuation were better than his parents’, the young Cassius was a slow reader and hesitant writer. The written word frustrated him and would for much of his life. Years later, family members would say that Cassius was dyslexic. But the diagnosis was little known and infrequently applied when he was young. The only thing about school that he liked was the audience it provided. Attention was what he craved most, and he earned it with irrepressible exuberance as well as with boxing.”
“Boxing, he said, ‘made me feel like something different. The kids used to make fun of me. But I always liked attention and publicity….attracting attention, showmanship, I liked the most. And soon I was the most popular kid at the school’.
Of course, Ali – A Life extensively details Ali’s boxing career. As familiar as many will be with this aspect of his life, in the boxing chapters so much more is revealed including how the “boxing business” is conducted, it doesn’t make for happy reading.
“Sooner or later, just about every great fighter attracts an entourage. At first the athlete is flattered by the attention of people who want to be near him. He thinks the sycophants might be fun and perhaps even useful to keep around. Before he knows it, he’s travelling in a crowd with a bunch of men in possession of vague titles and even vaguer job descriptions, men who expect first-class hotels, fine food, beautiful women, and payment in cash.”
It is astonishing how many people benefitted financially from Ali’s success, and the longer he continued to fight the more they stood to gain. It is alarming just how many times Ali donned gloves and climbed into a boxing ring. After reading this book, few will view the sport of boxing in the same light. The downside of the sport is revealed in all its depressing detail in the Ali experience of it. If this is what happened to one of boxing supreme exponents, one shudders to imagine what befell those many, many fighters without Ali’s skills….
“In an early interview, a reporter asked just how much of his bragging was genuine. How much of his ‘I am the greatest and gee ain’t I pretty’ routine did he believe. He answered precisely and without hesitation: ’Seventy five percent.’ It must have been refreshing for the public to know that there were limits to his self- love. Was it possible he possessed a trace of humility?”
“Born in the age of Jim Crow, Ali lived to see a black man elected president. Just as remarkable was the arc of his own life: the son of a poorly educated sign painter became the most famous man in the world; the greatest professional fighter of his time became his country’s most important draft resister. Although he had always been ambitious and always yearned for wealth, he had somehow remained warm and genuine, a man of sincere feeling and wit. Bitterness and cynicism never touched him-perhaps because he recognised this lesson of his own life: that American society, for all its flaws, produced remarkable men from unremarkable origins. He himself, indubitably was one.”
In one of his final interviews, he assessed his own accomplishments: “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show that to the world.”
After reading the book, one’s take-away impression of Muhammad Ali is likely to be affected. Ali – A Life doesn’t pull any punches, there is much sadness and maybe even some disappointment. His stature as a great boxer and his positive legacy to the sport remains unblemished. Ali, the person comes across as a courageous, enormously kind, caring and generous man. Add to this, more than a dab of naivety, too little self- care and maybe too much unbridled giving of himself.
Ali – A Life is a tremendous work of biography. Astonishing both in its detail and its breadth, it goes far beyond just being a boxing biography, it is an evocative chronicle of an era and of the life of an iconic, extraordinary man.