An affectionate portrait of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Shanahan, a medical technology salesman whose job required him to be on hand during some gnarly surgeries, met Ali as a volunteer with a Chicago-area charity that put athletes together with at-risk kids from the city’s “poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods,” not much different from the ones surrounding the boxer’s childhood home in Louisville. He approached Ali in the fall of 1975 to enlist his help, and, somewhat to his surprise, he found Ali both willing to participate and much more affable than his tough exterior might suggest, with “a million closest friends” in the bargain. Not that Ali—as fascinated by Shanahan’s up-close looks into the body as Shanahan was in Ali (“I think he still had a hard time imagining that I started my workday looking into open chest cavities”)—wasn’t plenty tough in the ring, but this account is mostly set in the world outside the arena. Charming moments abound, as when Ali and Shanahan head out for ice cream and encounter a roomful of customers made nervous by the presence of someone so famous, to which Ali responds by waving them over and saying to one young girl, “I am Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion of the world, and now you can tell your children and grandchildren that you and your daddy had ice cream with me at 31 Flavors.” One example of kindness follows another, with pointed contrasts with other famous figures in Ali’s circle—Bill Cosby, for instance, who emerges looking every bit as bad as in recent headlines. One of the finest episodes goes even further, though, and finds Ali behaving as nothing short of a hero, talking a trouble Vietnam veteran out of suicide high atop a Los Angeles building.
If you’re wondering why Ali is called “The Greatest,” this unchallenging but pleasant memoir makes for a good place to start.