Books

'Ali: A Life' Chronicles a Rhyming, Jabbing, Heroic Contradiction

In the first-ever unauthorized biography of Muhammad Ali, Jonathan Eig captures the icon's triumphant, tragic, and quintessentially American arc with exquisite detail and original analysis.

Ali: A Life
Jonathan Eig

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Oct 2017

Other

Early on in the documentary Muhammad and Larry (30 for 30, ESPN, 2009), Muhammad Ali stands in a boxing ring, not boxing. Instead, he leans over the top rope of his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania training ring, partaking in his other lifelong pursuit: entertaining a crowd. The slightly weathered, round-faced icon, then 38, can be seen sporting a dashing mustache as he prepares for the penultimate bout of his boxing career. A careful student of his own reflection, Ali is well aware of his new facial implement, and he works the mustache like Humphrey Bogart works a cigarette. "Ain't I pretty?" Ali calls out to his training camp visitors. (There was only ever one right answer when Ali posed that question.) "Since I've grown my mustache, you can call me Dark Gable now."

The quip earns audible laughter. In this terrific documentary from Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan, it's a moment that stands nearly alone in showing Ali's undiminished charm, while the rest of the film captures a drastic decline. I've always wondered where that Dark Gable punchline came from, as most small Ali-isms are more interesting these days than the iconic ones. Did the joke appear from thin air, or did it have its origins with someone in Ali's boundless entourage, much like "Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee" or "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong"?

Read Jonathan Eig's new book — the first unauthorized biography of Ali, which it should be said Eig began writing well before Ali passed in June 2016 — and you'll find "The Greatest" had the mustache joke in his back pocket for 30 years. Indeed, Ali's father, the always mustachioed Cash Clay, used to be called "Dark Gable" by barflies from Louisville's West End juke joints. All at once in the pages of Ali: A Life, "Dark Gable" becomes not a punchline, but a callback to a family history of showmanship, of flirtation, of the line between social grace and impropriety around which Ali danced with the same virtuosity he circled his opponents.

Such is the pleasure of Eig's deep-diving biography. Ali obliterated barriers for African-American athletes, vocalizing their convictions, but he's someone about whom other people have been deciding what's interesting for going on 60 years. Norman Mailer immortalized the masculine poetry of Ali's persona in The Fight. Thomas Hauser advanced the legend with the cooperation of the man himself in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Mark Kram penned an essential critique of Ali's needlessly cruel relationship with Joe Frazier in Ghosts of Manila. There are numerous other worthy entries to an Ali library. Yet now, in cradle-to-grave form, Eig crucially delineates what remains so fascinating about the 20th century sportsman in the present moment, and the overlooked portions of his life often reveal the most. The exiled champion's bizarre and forgotten college tours in 1968 tell us as much about him as does his implausibly knocking out George Foreman with the whole world watching. To date, no one has tackled Ali's biography with a keen interest in the subject's sweeping, triumphant, tragic, and quintessentially American arc. Ali: A Life is the rare biography detailed enough for the boxing nut, measured enough to thoughtfully place Ali's complicated legacy in the history of Civil Rights, and wholly accessible for the layman.

Most importantly, Eig deconstructs myth while never discrediting how impactful myth can be to an era and a country. There's great need for this approach to both Ali's glory and his martyrdom. His is a life full of iconography detached from truth: historical details that run off a legend's shoulders like beads of sweat. Perhaps the best example of Eig's historical revisions comes early in Ali: A Life. Most readers familiar with Ali's origin story know he took up boxing as a Louisville preteen. His bike was stolen, and young Cassius Clay searched for the culprit until he ran across Joe Martin, a local cop who advised the boy to channel his anger and victimhood into a skill. Eig pushes past the fable and considers the actual bike in question, as well as the family that bought it. It was an expensive bike for its day. The Clays strained to afford it, and Cassius feared punishment from his parents. But instead of disciplining their elder son, the far-from-wealthy Clays upgraded Cassius into an even more expensive motorized scooter. Attention and adoration, it seems, early and often shaped the psyche of the 22-year-old who would later proclaim, "I am the greatest."

Digging into interviews with grammar school classmates and pinning down the smell of the Clay family's kitchen in 1957, Eig shines as a researcher. But he happily dons other caps throughout Ali: A Life. In the requisite descriptions of Ali's many ring wars, he takes on the voice of last century's linguistically precise and economic sports columnists (though never Norman Mailer). Of the sixth round of the Thrilla in Manila, Eig writes that Joe Frazier "wedged himself under Ali's chest and began banging like a man trying to get out of a locked trunk."

Perhaps more impressively, Eig partakes in one of this century's best sportswriting techniques: data analysis. In search of the ultimate culprit Ali's physical demise, he commissioned the reputable punch-counting organization CompuBox to tabulate the blows Ali absorbed over the course of his career. Eig then pinpoints the moment at which Ali's in-ring abilities shifted from evasive brilliance to something more like a wing, a prayer, and a granite chin. The statistical analysis coincides with Ali somewhat offhandedly diagnosing his preternatural ability to take a punch. As early as 1971, Ali describes the sensation of his brain rattling around the skull as his "half-dream room", a space between life and death he seemed all too content to inhabit as his boxing career wore on.

Occasionally, biographical revelations like these supersede the ominous and get right to damning. First-person interviews with Belinda Ali — who was 17 when she became the then-exiled boxing champion's second wife — are particularly excoriating. They contain recollections of sporadic violence, serial philandering and utter emotional and familial abandonment. When it came to love and friendship, Ali could be blatantly hypocritical and cruelest to those who knew him best and loved him most: Belinda, Malcolm X, Bundini Brown. Ali's psychological profile as described here is of someone driven by great wanting. His worst moments recall the misdeeds of many powerful men, yet his overpowering streaks of generosity and affection toward complete strangers — going so far as to call people in the phone book just to give them a thrill — cements the complex of someone who brought and sought pleasure wherever he went.

As Ali's life and life story decelerate down the stretch of his retirement, Eig shifts to considering some pivotal questions of legacy. How did someone synonymous with Malcolm X in 1964 become as apolitical as Michael Jordan by the time he retired? How is it possible that Donald Trump, of all people, remembered Ali so glowingly upon his passing? How did such a powerful standard-bearer of black, leftwing, Muslim rebellion come to feel so safe, so embraceable for white America? In his answer, Eig contemplates the changing American moods on race relations, Vietnam, celebrity, and capitalism writ large as the '60s turned over into the '70s, but the author's most resonant image of Ali is of an idol conflicted inside and out.

"Constantly craving attention wasn't easy," Eig writes in one of the book's best bursts of character analysis. "It forced [Ali] into endless contradictions. It turned him into a fighter who said he didn't care to fight, a writer who didn't write, a minister without a ministry, a radical who wanted to be a popular entertainer, an extravagant spender who said money meant nothing to him …. an antiwar protester who avoided organized demonstrations … and a religiously devout and demanding husband who openly cheated on his wife."

Time has a way of flattening anyone's life. An image of Ali mock-crucified on the cover of Esquire, or goading a supine Sonny Liston to rise from the canvas, loses its dimensionality the more dorm room walls it's plastered onto, or the more retweets it receives when an anniversary rolls past. Ali's legacy deserves complicating, just as the singular heroism and sacrifice of his early life needs emphasizing. His most famous fights go by memorable monikers: the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manilla, Clay v. United States. But we need books like Eig's to put the other fights in perspective. A boxer without an opponent is just a dancer, and Ali's legacy is captured best through his myriad struggles: of culture, of competition, and of self.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Luke Cissell Creates Dreamy, Electronic Soundscapes on the Eclectic 'Nightside'

Nightside, the new album from composer and multi-instrumentalist Luke Cissell, is largely synthetic and electronic but contains a great deal of warmth and melody.

Music

Bibio Discusses 'Sleep on the Wing' and Why His Dreams Are of the Countryside

"I think even if I lived in the heart of Tokyo, I'd still make music that reminds people of the countryside because it's where my dreams often take me," says Bibio (aka Stephen Wilkinson) of his music and his new rustic EP.

Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.

Film

A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.

Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.