June 16, 2016
Muhammad Ali Inspires Writers in Life and Death
by Richard Sandormir
Norman Mailer, the pugilistic literary lion, opened “The Fight,” his account of Muhammad Ali’s victory in Zaire over George Foreman in 1974, with a ripe evocation of Ali’s magnetism, a sort of carnal electricity, which made him such a compelling subject.
“There is always a shock in seeing him again,” he wrote. “Not live as in television, but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded of their lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.”
Ali captivated writers for more than 50 years, and his death this month at 74 is unlikely to diminish his power as a literary muse.
David Hirshey, the Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of HarperCollins, called Ali “the perfect prism through which to view sports, race, religion, politics, celebrity, comedy, tragedy.” Hirshey, who published Mark Kram’s revisionist look at Ali, “Ghosts of Manila,” in 2001, added: “And at the same time, he’s also an extraordinary kaleidoscope — depending on who is looking at him, and how you always get a different image. I suspect there will be endless angles for generations to come.”
Ali has had his life story told repeatedly. He has been written about as a mystic, a healer, a friend to ordinary folks, a rapper and an acolyte of Malcolm X. He put his name to a 1975 autobiography and cooperated with Thomas Hauser on a 1991 biography that was written as an oral history (“Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times”). He was the co-author of “The Soul of a Butterfly” with one of his daughters, Hana, and the outsize star of a 75-pound tome(“GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali”) that was covered in silk and leather and cost up to $7,000.
New entries are already being added. Sports Illustrated is publishing a commemorative book this month composed largely of Ali articles from its archive. The magazine, as well as Time and Life, put out a special edition that went on sale Friday.
Another Ali book by Hauser, “Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to the Greatest” — a reissue of a 2005 collection of his writings about Ali with some newer pieces added — was just published. And a book by Josh Gross about Ali’s not-so-great adventure in Japan with the wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976 (“Ali vs. Inoki”) — and its influence on mixed martial arts — will be available this month from BenBella Books.
A biography from Jonathan Eig, who has written books about Lou Gehrig, Al Capone and Jackie Robinson, is scheduled to be published in 2017. Eig looked at the array of Ali books about three years ago and determined that the oeuvre lacked a complete biography, the closest being Hauser’s oral history.
There’s a ton of new material and new information that no one has come across before,” Eig said. “I found some of it in the archives of people who interviewed him over the years, who left their note and tapes, some in court records, and some in interviews. His wives had never really discussed what their lives were like with him.”
President Bill Clinton delivered a moving eulogy to The Greatest
And in a vow that sounded almost Ali-like, he added: “I think I’ll blow people’s minds with some of the stuff I’ve discovered about Ali, in good ways and bad ways. I think people will be shocked by the book.”
While Eig chose to re-examine the full breadth of Ali’s life and career, Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith took a rigorous look at a critical slice of Ali’s earlier years: how Cassius Clay become Muhammad Ali, which they delve into in their recently published book, “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X” (Basic Books).
“We weren’t the first to recognize this, but most of their relationship was clandestine, so the only way to get to it was to systematically go through newspapers and F.B.I. reports to create a day-by-day itinerary of each man,” Roberts, a history professor at Purdue, said of Ali and Malcolm X. “We got into the politics of the Nation of Islam, the schism between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, what role Cassius Clay played in that schism and how he was used as a pawn by both characters.”
Once Muhammad had cast Malcolm X out of the Nation of Islam, Clay, who had only recently taken his new name, turned his back on Malcolm X.
“When Malcolm lost the contest for Clay’s loyalty,” Roberts and Smith write, “he had no more moves, no more pawns to sacrifice. At that moment Malcolm was expendable. At that moment, his life was in jeopardy.” He was assassinated on February 21, 1965.
Hauser, a longtime boxing writer who spent considerable time with Ali in the 1980s and ’90s, reflected with sadness that the world was able to watch Ali deteriorate over the years, in contrast with world figures like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, whose physical declines were largely shielded from the public. Ali was not ashamed of the effects of Parkinson’s disease and often wanted to travel and be seen.
“We watched this man wither in the public eye,” Hauser said by telephone. “Lennox Lewis told me he retired when he did as heavyweight champion because of what happened to Ali. Everyone knew the end was coming and quite a few people, myself included, felt it was merciful.” And, he said, younger generations who experienced Ali in decline missed the sight of him healthy, flicking his jab, declaring his greatness, admiring his prettiness and standing, in braggadocio, in victory over a supine Sonny Liston.
It will take time,” he wrote, “for the image of the aging Ali to fade and for the image of the young Ali to be restored.”
A version of this article appears in print on June 12, 2016, on page SP6 of the New York edition with the headline: A Writers’ Muse in Life and Death.