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Ali: A life Jonathan Eig
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HE OFTEN claimed to be the greatest of all time, and he was right. Only a handful of athletes reach the pinnacle of their discipline. A couple of those have done so with a swagger that made them their sport's chief entertainer, too. Just one has thrown all of that away to do what was unpopular but principled.
When Muhammad Ali died on June 3rd last year he was remembered not only as boxing's most decorated and enthralling heavyweight, but also for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war as a rebellion against white supremacy. Today, black athletes protest against the government in unison. Ali was alone. After his death Barack Obama, who kept a pair of his gloves in the White House, compared him to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
Jonathan Eig's book is the first major biography since Ali's death, and it offers a bruising account of his life. It jabs at myths throughout. As a 12-year-old, Cassius Clay did take up boxing to avenge a stolen bike - but his parents also bought him a replacement scooter. As a young contender he had been fond of his birth name, which sounded gladiatorial. As an Olympic champion he proudly displayed his medal for years after winning it (and did not, as a later book claimed, hurl it into the Ohio river in anger about segregated restaurants). Forever boasting of his bravery, Ali was scared of flying, shy around girls when he was young - he fainted after trying to kiss one - and nervous before his fights. For all his wit and rhymes, his schoolmates thought him as'“dumb as a box of rocks', and he was barely literate.
Mr Eig's portrait is of a man who professed to 'do everything on instinct', inside the ring and out. His impulses grappled with each other throughout his life. Ali was ravenous for fame, but he did not have to be liked. He whipped white Americans into a fury and called his black opponents Uncle Toms. He had to be known, which is why he knocked on doors advertising his fights as a teenager and trained by sprinting beside the school bus. He lusted after money, too, and loved to run his hands through piles of his cash. In 1974 he happily accepted a $5m fee from Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire's dictator, for the 'Rumble in the Jungle', a televised fight held in the Zairean capital, Kinshasa, with the undefeated world heavyweight champion, George Foreman. He also became a sex addict. Ali was married four times and liked to play his wives off against each other, asking them to book hotel rooms for his romps. He was often caught with prostitutes on the day of a fight.
Yet he had his mother's generosity, turning up at hospitals and schools and dispensing charity to whoever asked for it. That largesse combined unfortunately with his sense of loyalty. A posse of hangers-on bled him dry, as did the Nation of Islam. It was through the creed of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation's leader, that Ali fulfilled his most powerful desire: to rebel. His father raised him on tales of the white man's cruelty, and now he had a way to strike back. White people could keep their segregation, because Elijah advocated a black land with black laws. That meant refusing to fight the Viet Cong, a decision that cost Ali a five-year jail sentence (which was overturned by the Supreme Court without being served) and three years of his career.
Defiance, in Mr Eig's telling, was Ali's defining feature and his tragic flaw. The author uses punching statistics, speech analysis and a bevy of interviews to illustrate Ali's deterioration in his late 30s, and his stubborn denial of it. By the end, the floating butterfly was'a punching bag with legs'. He absorbed 200,000 hits across his career, taking eight times the hits that he landed on his opponent in his last title fight. This otherwise masterful biography leaves barely 30 pages for the final three decades of its subject’s life, as he struggled with Parkinson's disease and mellowed in old age, even representing Uncle Sam in negotiations with Iran and Iraq. But Mr Eig gets inside the guard of an American hero who believed in personal liberty more than allegiance to a flag—who, in his own words, 'wanted to be free'.
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