Muhammad Ali (1942-2016), the recently departed, self-styled greatest, gets an appropriately outsized—and first-rate—biography.
Ali, who began boxing as a professional nearly 60 years ago, was not exposed to much in the way of literature early on; he complained that his own supposed autobiography “made me look like a fool” and added that, after all, he’d “never read a book in my life.” However, as Wall Street Journal contributor Eig (The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, 2014, etc.) makes clear, Ali was possessed of a certain kind of poetic genius on top of a gift for self-appreciation to which layers of legend would be added. As an instance of that mythologizing, it is certain that when facing the draft in 1966, Ali said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong”—but the more commonly quoted rejoinder, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” was added on, something that African-American protestors had said of the Vietnam War before Ali’s number came up. In charting Ali’s life, which was marked by plenty of personal difficulty but by a relatively comfortable upbringing, Eig observes that he seldom shied from controversy but, though reviled by some for becoming a Black Muslim and for some of his well-aired public statements, was also widely recognized for his talent. The opponent he beat in his first professional fight as an 18-year-old Cassius Clay, a West Virginia police chief, said, “He’s a very good boxer for a kid; best I’ve met for a boy just starting out.” Other opponents would have similarly high regard, though not without talking a lot of smack. Eig does a fine job of covering all the bases, and though the book is occasionally overwritten, it’s only out of enthusiasm for his undeniably great subject, about whom the author is now working with Ken Burns to develop a documentary.
An exemplary life of an exemplary man who, despite a few missteps, deserves to be remembered long into the future.