Monday, January 6, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Ali

Title: Ali: A Life
Author: Jonathan Eig

Image result for ali eig
via Amazon

I am not much of a boxing fan.  It is undeniably barbaric yet somehow still legal.  What Joyce Carol Oates elegantly described as "a stylized mimicry of a fight to the death" I see as two ridiculously strong humans trying their darnedest to knock each other unconscious.

Generally speaking, the popularity of the sport has been in gradual decline for generations.  When I first started reading the sports page on a regular basis back in the early '80s, any casual American sports fan could have told you who the heavyweight champion of the world was: Larry Holmes at the time.  Right now?  I have no idea.

Anthony Joshua of the United Kingdom.  He just regained the title last month.  I had to look it up.

But there is one boxer whose star never seems to dim - not in retirement, not even in death.  Indeed, Muhammad Ali was probably one of the most famous people who has ever lived.  The story of his life and career is extraordinary and Eig's biography is remarkably thorough.  When Ali first hit the professional ranks in the early '60s, he was faster than any heavyweight the sport had ever seen.  He was loud.  He was smart.  He was handsome.  He had a genius for self-promotion long before it became the norm for superstar athletes.  He defied every expectation the public had for a black celebrity at the time.  Many hated him for it but there was no denying he was the best boxer in the world and a magnetic personality to boot.

Image result for muhammad ali
via Wikipedia

Then he dodged the draft.  It doesn't seem like such a big deal now in light of what is remembered about the Vietnam era.  But it was a very big deal at the time because Ali, a black man expected to be grateful for his good fortune, did it before a generational swarm of white, privileged college students started doing the same.  He claimed conscientious objector status on religious grounds as a member of the Nation of Islam, an organization most Americans had never heard of before Ali announced his association.  While his lawyers were able to keep him out of jail, he was banned from boxing for three years during what should have been his athletic prime.  When he finally did return in the early '70s, his biggest matches - three with Joe Frazier and one with George Foreman - were among the most celebrated contests in all of sport.

A few years ago, I read and reviewed Eig's biography of Lou Gehrig (see here).  While I enjoyed the book, I griped over Eig's hero-worship of his subject.  He provides a much more honest and well-rounded perspective on Ali.  Larger than life was the only way Ali knew how to live but he was far from a perfect hero.  He cheated shamelessly on all four of his wives, frequently with their logistical assistance.  He was disastrous with money, squandering each accumulated fortune on bad business deals and parasitic associates.

And like too many athletes, he stayed in the game too long.  Unfortunately, the consequences for a boxer with such a decision are far more dire than for most.  His choice of tactics didn't help.  No longer fast enough to stay out of reach, he developed a strategy called rope-a-dope in which he would allow his opponent to take free shots at him until he exhausted himself.  He encouraged brutal beatings from his sparring partners, too, in order to prepare for matches.  His associates should have stopped him but they didn't, too dependent on his winnings for their own fortunes.  The judges should have stopped him but instead they would grant him victories even when he was clearly out-boxed.  Towards the end of his career, he was winning on reputation more than skill and being rewarded for not passing out.

Brain damage was inevitable.  Contrary to the beliefs of many, myself included, Ali was never diagnosed with Parkinson's disease per se.  Instead, he had Parkinson's-like symptoms which were most certainly connected to the abuse he'd taken in the ring.

Overall, Ali does not come across as an especially sympathetic character.  Instead, I find more sympathy for his wives - the last, Lonnie, was the one who got rid of the leeches and got his finances in order - and for his greatest boxing rivals.  Foreman has never given up his assertion that he was drugged by someone, possibly even his own trainer, during their marathon bout in Zaire.  Nor does Eig ever dismiss the possibility that it was true.  Holmes told Ali he loved and respected him immediately after dealing out Ali's most brutal loss, and begged the older man to quit boxing for his own health.  I even gained sympathy for a couple of greats I'd never heard of before: Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers, just two of the many fighters who lost bouts to Ali on reputation.

Image result for joe frazier
Joe Frazier via Wikipedia 

For me, the most sympathetic character in the Ali saga has always been Joe Frazier.  Their three encounters are probably the most celebrated matches in boxing history.  Smokin' Joe never had Ali's flash but he more than made up for it with a nasty left hook.  Beyond the ring, the Ali-Frazier story is one of betrayal.  Frazier was supportive of Ali during his exile, even lending him money.  Frazier came to see Ali as a friend.  In the lead up to each of their matches, Ali resorted to low-ball attacks, calling Frazier out as a gorilla and an Uncle Tom.  Ali always defended his actions as gamesmanship.  Frazier carried the grudge for the rest of his life.

Absolutely, Ali is worth reading.  Being a boxing fan is not necessary.  I don't know if I'd go so far as to recommend my wife read it but I would certainly read more books like it myself.  I don't know if I have the stomach for more boxing but biographies of this quality in general?  Yes.


  1. he was a truly man with character;)

  2. Great review. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I have a... nostalgic? love for boxing derived from the fact that I'm related to "Gentleman" Jim Corbett. But I don't enjoy watching it beyond the movies and, mostly, the Rocky movies. Some of them.

    1. Definitely not my sport. But it does make for good movies.