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Hero Worship, Reportage and Friendship in 'Approaching Ali'

While the access Miller gained sheds some light on Ali’s post-boxing life, this story is really about Miller and how much of his life revolved around his hero.

Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts

Publisher: Liveright
Length: 240 pages
Author: Davis Miller
Price: $27.95
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2015-11

We generally don’t have much direct contact with our heroes. Maybe we follow their social media accounts, maybe we maintain a personal shrine to them. If they’re making a public appearance, we might queue up to shake their hand and thank them for being. But only the most audacious of worshippers would even fathom getting to know their hero while watching old tapes in the living room.

Meet Davis Miller. He sought his hero out, and improbably got welcomed into his life.

His hero was Muhammad Ali. One would think that needs no further explanation, seeing as how Ali is one of the most recognized and beloved figures on the planet, ever. But there is more than one Ali with whom Miller is enthralled. There is Ali as heavyweight champ in the ‘70s, a shadow of his former self in the ring but still the boxer who was the tentpole for his sport and its business – and, crucially, nowhere near as polarizing a cultural and political figure as he had been a decade earlier. And there is the Ali as ex-boxer, sometimes unsteady in his words and hand movements, but possessed of a calm, generous sprit that belies the brutality of his previous life’s work.

Miller spans 50 years of hero worship, reportage and friendship in Approaching Ali. Its subtitle, “A Reclamation in Three Acts”, and cover photo would lead one to think the book is mostly about Ali. But while the access Miller gained sheds some light on Ali’s post-boxing life, this story is as much, if not more so, about Miller and how much of his life revolved around his hero.

It all started in 1964, when an 11-year-old Miller, sickly to begin with and mourning the death of his mother, saw Ali -- then known by his government name, Cassius Clay -- being interviewed on TV about his upcoming championship bout with the fearsome Sonny Liston. Clay’s braggadocio was in full effect, even as most of the free world thought he was about to be slaughtered. But Miller was enthralled by the spell of Clay’s words, and even more so when he shocked the world and beat Liston.

Miller continued to watch Ali’s fights, and he also continued to be sickly. By high school, he was by far the smallest kid in his class, and routinely picked on by everyone. Like the proverbial 97-pound weakling of old-school bodybuilding ads, Miller fantasized that inside he was a muscle-bound hunk -- one who just so happened to be named Muhammad Ali.

He starts working out, and takes up karate. Cue the movie music: he gets bigger and stronger, eventually wrangling a chance to spar with his hero in 1975. For most, the story would end there. But Miller’s fascination continued, to the point where he convinced his bride-to-be to tag along to the Ali-Earnie Shavers fight in 1977 in New York City, where they were also supposed to get married that weekend.

And it never really let up. Miller takes up the pen, with Ali as his muse. He becomes a boxing reporter for Sport magazine and others, but he’s still got his stories of his Ali encounters to tell. One day in 1988, seemingly on a whim, Miller pays an unannounced visit to Ali’s home in Louisville, Kentucky. They bond immediately, and instantly Miller becomes a friend of the family. Miller spends much of the next six years in Ali’s company, at his ranch in Michigan or on the road with him around the world.

We’re supposed to believe that this inside look is revelatory, but it’s not quite that. Many of the details Miller presents -- his routine of prayer, his stacks of mail, his magic tricks, his slowing gait, his sense of peace -- are hardly news. They’ve already been reported: the basics at the end of Thomas Hauser’s 1992 Ali biography, with additional mentions in subsequent coverage throughout the years. Still, Miller tells some great stories about Ali in the early ‘90s as a global icon, including one about the time he surprised some Los Angelenos waiting for a bus.

Perhaps this book would have had a greater impact had not Miller fallen out of touch with Ali for more than 20 years. That just so happened to be the period when the world began to see the effects of his physical decline. He lit the torch to signal the start of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, but his hand was clearly unsteady. His speech became increasingly slurred, to the point where some broadcasters felt compelled to add subtitles beneath his soundbites, as if he were speaking a foreign language. He is still lucid enough nowadays to rip into Donald Trump for his view of Muslims, but his public appearances otherwise are now few and far between.

For many who remember him back in the day, it’s hard to reconcile those memories with the Ali of 2016, so far removed is he from his prime. It’s also hard for Miller as well, reunited with Ali in 2014. By this point, Ali is wheelchair-bound, his body diminished, barely able to speak above a whisper. But Miller, whose personal and professional lives went through their own traumas, doesn’t seem to need Ali as his personal north star, or be enthralled by him, quite so much anymore. At least the bond between them (and their families) is still there, for Miller to draw strength and wonder from whenever the moment inspires.

Again, this doesn’t tell us much about Ali we didn’t already know. It might have been more interesting to learn how Miller perceived his relationship with Ali during the 20 years they were out of contact. Were there random thoughts that made him flash back to his time with Ali? Did his family ever ask about him? Did he take to wearing a “What Would Ali Do?” bracelet? What does Ali mean to Miller now, after all these years?

Readers wanting to actually approach Ali are advised to consult any of a batch of books already written on the man and his art, with more coming every so often (including Hauser’s update of his bio, this summer). The books keep coming because we remain fascinated by him, and probably will be well after his death. Such is the nature of heroes, and especially this one, whose combined physical, political and cultural presence remains unmatched. It certainly is no surprise at all that a scrawny kid with big dreams would take on as a role model the biggest, baddest man in all the world.


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