Fast-paced account of Muhammad Ali’s struggle as a conscientious draft objector, a flashpoint for a tumultuous era.
Prolific sportswriter Montville (Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend, 2011, etc.) writes in a breezy, colloquial style, but his diligent research allows him to capture both the inimitable Ali and the larger social sweep of the mid-1960s as the heavyweight champion’s stance against being drafted crystallized thorny political and racial issues. “He stumbled into his situation,” writes the author, “said he didn’t want to go to war because of his religion, put one foot in front of another, and came out the other end a hero.” Montville proves that Ali’s grueling odyssey to the Supreme Court, following the loss of his livelihood and nearly his freedom, mirrored mainstream America’s slow embrace of tolerance and turn against the Vietnam War. The author goes beyond the expected celebrity cameos to capture the diverse supporting cast orbiting Ali, from the white Louisville businessmen who originally backed him to a black Philadelphia gangster who gave him a house, as well as the secretive subcultures of boxing and the Nation of Islam. He humanizes Ali by following him through his strange forced retirement, when he became a passionate speaker on college campuses and even starred in a radical theater production on Broadway, as the national mood grew darker. Montville adeptly synthesizes primary sources, from Ali’s verbal jousts with Howard Cosell to his testimony before a segregationist judge, who actually concurred with Ali’s argument on religious grounds but was overruled by the Justice Department. The narrative follows both Ali’s intricate legal appeals and his belated return to competition following the 1970 restoration of his boxing license, culminating in a long-delayed, bitter bout against Joe Frazier: “Every newspaper in America would run a picture of [Ali’s] knockdown.” Ali remains a magnetic figure throughout, but Montville restores his fuller human complexity.
A dramatic, pleasing tale of a sports iconoclast fighting for his rights during tumultuous times.