© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Stunning New Biography 'Ali' Is The Portrait A Champion Deserves

On Feb. 6, 1967, Muhammad Ali stepped into a boxing ring in the Houston Astrodome to take on then-heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell. Ali was nursing a serious grudge against Terrell, who kept referring to his upcoming opponent as "Cassius Clay," the birth name that Ali had abandoned years before. In the eighth round, after battering Terrell with a series of hard punches, Ali started taunting the fighter: "What's my name?" he shouted, over and over again. "What's my name?"

It's safe to say that Terrell would never forget Ali's name, and neither would the rest of the world. Even though his boxing career ended with a series of lackluster fights, he's still considered "The Greatest," not just because of his one-time dominance in the ring, but because of his outsize personality and refusal to ever give in. Ali, who died last year, was contradictory and controversial, and Jonathan Eig tells his story beautifully in his stunning new biography of the champ, Ali: A Life.

Eig paints a complex portrait of Ali, beginning with his childhood in Louisville, Ky. As a child, Cassius Clay, Jr., was a widely loved goofball who adored his mom and little brother. (His relationship with his father, a hard-drinking sign painter, was always complicated.) He never excelled in school — a classmate recalls him as "dumb as a box of rocks," and Ali would later reveal that he got through school by sitting "next to the skinny kid with glasses in school and [copying] his answers."

Ali often poked fun at his perceived lack of intelligence, but even though he wasn't book smart, he was a genius in countless other ways. (Eig speculates that Ali had dyslexia, and that actually helped make him a better boxer, as "some dyslexics exhibit exceptional visual talents.") Ali unquestionably had a unique way with words, and a canny knowledge of his own brand — he was, Eig writes, "a gifted pitchman during a new age in marketing, when advertising agencies on Madison Avenue found stylish new ways to build brands, boost celebrities, and generate wealth."

Ali will always be remembered for his skill in the ring, and Eig recounts the champ's major bouts in dizzying detail. Even readers who don't care for boxing will be drawn in by his descriptions of the fights, the "the cigarette and cigar smoke draping the air, the shouts, the moans, the voices screaming for holy blood."

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Ali's life was only tangentially related to boxing. He declared himself a conscientious objector during Vietnam, and was arrested for draft dodging; the ensuing controversy kept him out of the ring for years and made him a pariah among many whites unused to a black man standing his ground. "That's why his refusal to accept the draft captured so much attention and stirred such anger, because everything about Ali's existence offended the majority of white Americans: his skin color, his loud mouth, his religion, and, now, his lack of patriotism," Eig writes. (This anger still persists, as President Trump's crusade against black NFL athletes kneeling during the national anthem proves.)

Ali's life was more complex than most other sports figures, and Eig's brilliant, exhaustive book is the biography the champ deserves.

Eig does a tremendous job writing about the contradictions that made up Ali, and not just the obvious one: how his stance on Vietnam made him a hero to some and a villain to others. Ali was capable of great kindness — in one moving passage from the book, he gives money to a man with no legs who was pretending to be Roy Campanella. (The legendary Brooklyn Dodgers catcher couldn't walk, but did have legs.) After Ali's cornerman, Angelo Dundee, asked the boxer why he played along, Ali responded, "Ang, we got legs."

But, as Eig notes, "from the depths of the kind and loyal Ali, the jovial Ali, up rose the cruel Ali, the self-centered, insolent young man who flared in anger when he felt threatened." Ali would regularly cross the line taunting his opponents; he would often publicly humiliate his closest friends. Eig doesn't sugarcoat this side of the champ; his biography is brutally honest even as it acknowledges Ali's generosity and courage.

Near the book's end, Eig recounts one of the most moving moments in the history of sports: Ali lighting the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. (Fascinatingly, Eig reveals, the moment was the brainchild of an Applebee's waiter whose father had been the Ali family's lawyer.) It's a fitting coda to Eig's biography, and it's hard not to tear up reading about it. Ali's life was more complex than most other sports figures, and Eig's brilliant, exhaustive book is the biography the champ deserves: a beautiful portrait of a man whose name will never be forgotten, who carried a torch for equality and justice, and lit a fire that will never go out.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.