‘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

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.

RATING 9 / 10