By Chet Yarbrough
Ali (A Life)
By: Jonathan Eig
Narrated by Kevin R. Free
Jonathan Eig’s research of Muhammed Ali’s life offers some surprises to listener/readers. One who grew up in the sixties will be reminded, entertained, and appalled by Eig’s biography of the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. Muhammed Ali, aka Cassius Clay, The Greatest, The Champ, The Louisville Lip, and less flattering nicknames, shows Ali lives up to every name noted in Eig’s biography of Muhammed Ali.
A criticism one may have of Eig’s detailed biography is its length. The last chapters dwell on Ali’s deterioration as a boxer with more detail than necessary. It becomes too repetitive in its reification of a man’s life who is ultimately only human.
The defeat of Sonny Liston.
One might think sports, particularly boxing, is no measure of intelligence.
However, Eig notes Ali had an instinct for knowing when a punch is going to be thrown. Ali’s reflexes responded with such great speed punches often missed their target. That skill and Ali’s showmanship made him the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Ali’s voice and opinion during the early years of his fighting career show him to be a brilliant actor, comedic insulter, and revered representative of Black America. What hid the truth of Ali’s intelligence is standardized testing, and the social circumstance of the 1960s.
There are many forms of intelligence.
Ali is classified as 4f by the military when he flunks its reading and comprehension test for the draft. Eig suggests Ali is dyslexic which makes reading a laborious and unrewarding task. To reinforce the idea that Ali is dyslexic, Ali only receives a high school diploma because of his school principal’s intervention. The principal recognizes something in Ali that is missed by standardized tests. As most Americans know, Ali goes on to become the heavyweight champion of the world by beating Sonny Liston, a monster of a man who was a 7 to 1 favorite to beat Cassius Clay before the fight began. What is revealed by Eig’s research is the complexity, the joy, and sorrow of Muhammed Ali’s life and world renown.
Ali beats Sonny Liston and becomes the heavyweight champion of the world. After his ascension to champion, Ali does not want to be drafted. He does not see how he could be ineligible for the draft when he was evaluated by the service and found to be 4f but now is considered draftable. He enjoys his life as it is and notes that he has no desire to go to war against Vietcong for whom he has no understanding or hate. Ali refuses the draft without arguing his newly found Muslim faith could make him a conscientious objector. The government sentences him to 5 years in prison. Ali is stripped of his title and banned from boxing for 3 years. He is 25 years old and in the prime of his boxing career.
Those who grew up in the sixties knew of Ali whether they were sports fans or not. Vietnam is raging in the sixties. Many young, and some older Americans rebel against government overreach with anti-war protests, and human rights demonstrations.
While many enlist or are drafted into the service, a few burn their draft cards and escape to Canada. Some draft dodgers stay in America and publicly fight the draft because they view Vietnam as an unjust war. Ali chooses to stay in America and fight the draft based on his early 4f classification. Though that argument does not stand up, Ali refuses to be drafted.
With the help of growing public unrest, Ali is eventually released from a lower court’s charge of draft dodging by the Supreme Court of the United States. His ban from boxing is removed but only after the suspension removed Ali from the healthiest years of his boxing life.
What makes Eig’s biography so interesting is there is no singular motive for Ali’s choices in life. Ali is a human puzzle. He chooses to become a Muslim and devotes his life to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Ali appreciates NOI’s teaching because it directly challenges white America for unfair treatment of Black Americans. However, Ali is not a religious zealot. He is shown to be a human with many of the same failings of all human beings. He prays to Allah but violates many preachments of NOI. He pursues conjugal pleasures of other women while married.
Ali is suspended from NOI for a year by the order of NOI’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The suspension is not because of philandering but because of Ali’s public pronouncements about boxing as the source of his fame and fortune.
Elijah Muhammed, the leader of NOI, considers sports and entertainment as frivolous and unworthy of anyone who believes in the Muslim faith. Ali accepts the punishment and is never officially released from his banishment, though he remains a Muslim.
Ali does not abandon his religion, but he says his greatest regret in life is having abandoned his friend, Malcolm X (aka Malcolm Little) who criticized Elijah Muhammad’s flaunting of marriage vows because of sexual relationships with women other than the leader’s wife.
Malcolm X is murdered. Some say he was murdered at the direction of NOI. One wonders if Ali is fearful of the power of Elijah Muhammed or just aware of NOI’s potential for harming followers if they differ with the leader’s pronouncement. Eig’s biography implies Ali’s intelligence and hedonism are likely motives for Ali’s actions, not fear of NOI’s punishment. After all, Ali is a prolific violator of his own marriage vows and cash income from fighting remain his most important goal. However, it is a puzzle that Ali said his biggest regret is abandoning his friendship with Malcom X who vilified Elijah Muhammad’s morality and rejected belief in a separate, exclusively Black, NOI nation.
Eig’s biography implies Ali is inadvertently, rather than deliberatively, on the right side of history. One wonders if it is inadvertent. Vietnam is a tragedy, badly managed by America. Resistance to the war, Malcolm X’s recognition of the equality of all human beings, and Ali’s regrets about their friendship being broken suggests something more about what Ali really believed. Hedonism is one of many faults of humanity. Eig clearly shows Ali is no Saint, but Eig implies Ali has a moral center beyond his ill treatment of women.
The last half of Eig’s book recalls Ali’s boxing matches, his relationships, and the terrible impact of boxing on the human brain and body. Ali is shown to be an inveterate user of prostitutes when training for fights regardless of its consequence to four marriages. (It’s interesting to note that the Muslim faith accepts the right of men to have four wives at the same time. This is forbidden in America but violated by more than one religion. Is it a coincidence that Ali marries four women?)
It is difficult to believe a fighter could fight for 15 rounds when 3 rounds for an amateur are exhausting. Ali’s stamina throughout his boxing life is seemingly supernatural. He loses and wins the Heavyweight Championship’ title 3 times in his boxing career.
Eig’s detailing of Ali’s fights is particularly interesting to anyone who has boxed as an amateur or professional. Eig points out Ali’s change in the way he fought left-handed boxers without understanding that leading with one’s right is what a trainer tells a right-handed fighter to do when fighting a lefty.
Ali, and opponents like Frazier, show energy and determination that seem other-worldly. One wonders how much of that energy and determination is based on subliminal punishment for a profligate or hedonistic life. That may be personal psychobabble more than objective interpretation of Eig’s biography of Ali. One may ask oneself; what avenues were open to Black Americans in the 1960s to become rich and famous in order to be hedonistic?
Ali obviously fought for money and fame, but Eig shows Ali and other boxing champions pay a very high price. Ali died at 74 years of age but suffered from diagnosed Parkinson’s for 32 of those years. Though there is no proven direct correlation for Parkinsons’ diagnosis, it has been shown that boxers are more suspectable than the general public to speech impediment, Alzheimer’s, and erratic body movement from blows to the head. Frazier died at the age of 67. (Ali was 33 and Frazier was 31 in the “Thrilla in Manilla”, the fight of the century–it is won by Ali in this third fight between the two, but that fight sent both to the hospital after its conclusion.)
Eig pulls no punches in his biography of Ali. Ali was a flawed human being that treated women as property. Ali entertained the world in his rise to fame. Ali made the most of what he could in the time he lived. Ali was the greatest in some ways and the least in others. He exemplified much of what many want to achieve but at a price few are willing to pay.