Several years ago it was remarked that The Guinness Book of World Records had pronounced Muhammad Ali "The Most Written About Human Being Who Ever Lived," having surpassed, in order, Lincoln, Christ, and Napoleon. (Of course this was before People and Entertainment Weekly discovered Leonardo DiCaprio.) For all those oceans of ink, though, it's remarkable how little of genuine and lasting interest on Ali has been preserved between covers.
The supposedly definitive 1991 Ali biography by Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, was pompous and stilted, a testimonial not at all in the spirit of Ali. In truth, even Ali's autobiography, The Greatest, wasn't in the spirit of Ali. Ali the subject was too big for Ali the writer (and his ghost). Only the text for Wilfrid Sheed's Muhammad Ali--A Portrait in Words (1975), basically a fleshed-out photo book, combined information and real insight, but it only followed Ali up to the Foreman fight--sort of like a biography of Napoleon that ends with Austerlitz.
The truth is that Muhammad Ali has meant too many things to too many people for one writer to reflect them all. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that now, as Ali settles into an early Parkinson-induced detachment, we have the best book about him yet, The Muhammad Ali Reader, and it's written by several people: A.J. Liebling, Tom Wolfe, George Plimpton, Jackie Robinson, Murray Kempton, Jimmy Cannon, Norman Mailer, Roger Kahn, Garry Wills, Hunter S. Thompson, Ishmael Reed, and the Nigerian poet, Wole Soyinka, to name just a few. The Muhammad Ali Reader has been shaped by the editing sensibilities of Gerald Early, the journalist and culture critic, who made the selection of pieces. He seems to have missed almost nothing about Ali that is of interest (though Wilfrid Sheed is conspicuously absent from the mix) and has even included a few things that aren't. Oddly, the bad stuff, too, is intriguing, if only to illustrate the range of responses Ali was capable of generating.
In fact, The Muhammad Ali Reader has two writing sensibilities, the second belonging to the Champ himself. It's amazing how, even when filtered through someone else's intellect, Ali's persona still dominates. Early encourages this tension by arranging the pieces chronologically, so we can see Ali taking shape over the years.
The first major magazine piece on Cassius Marcellus Clay was written by the greatest of all boxing writers, A.J. Liebling, in a 1962 issue of The New Yorker. (It was also Liebling's last story, and, subsequently, wasn't included in his classic boxing anthology, The Sweet Science.) Liebling had the great good fortune to see the young boxer/poet get dumped on his seat by a tough journeyman named Sonny Banks. Clay was raw and unorthodox, but, as Liebling wrote, "Honest effort and sterling character backed by solid instruction will carry a man a good way, but unearthed natural ability has a lot to be said for it." Clay got up and began throwing combinations; Banks looked like "a man trying to fight off wasps with a shovel." In the end, Liebling estimates, Clay "was the kind of hero likely to be around for a long while."
Liebling was wrong. Not too long after the Banks fight, Clay won the heavyweight title by dominating the terrifying Sonny Liston in so easy a fashion that writers like Vanity Fair's Nick Tosches are still writing conspiracy theories about it. And almost instantly thereafter Clay became Muhammad Ali, Black Muslim and anti-war activist. This period marked Ali's ascent as an icon, such that "by the end of the '60s," as Garry Willis writes, "Ali was the intellectual's catnip."
Ali not only inspired great writing, he inspired great overwriting, the best, of course, coming from Norman Mailer. "He is fascinating," wrote Mailer in "King of the Hill," his great essay on the first Ali-Joe Frazier fight, "so he is obsessive. The more we don't want to think about him, the more we are obliged to.... He is America's Greatest ego. He is also... the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the 20th century."
Mailer is gracious in accepting second place in the Greatest ego contest, and he came to influence other observers' interpretations of Ali. Among this material is some truly bad writing, and Early must be obliged to sample some of it, too. "In the '60s," wrote Pete Hamill after Ali lost to Frazier in 1971, "we still believed in princes, and for a few brief years, one of the gaudiest of American princes of all was a heavyweight prizefighter who called himself Muhammad Ali." Only one of the gaudiest? And most of us would argue that Ali didn't really become a great fighter until after he lost to Frazier.
But the Ali-inspired diarrhea-of-the-pen award must go to Ms. Joyce Carol Oates: "When in feckless youth Ali was a dazzling figure combining say, the brashness of Hotspur and the insouciance of Lear's Fool..." Well, let's cut to the chase: "These somber and terrifying boxing matches [of Ali's late career] make us weep for their very futility; we seem to be in the presence of human experience too profound to be named..." With passages like these, there is indeed lots of futility, and plenty of weeping to do.
Garry Wills sums up the literary world's fixation on Ali, noting that "for some reason, people don't want fighters just to be fighters." He's right. And no matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise, for some reason we don't want Muhammad Ali to be just a fighter. Perhaps Wole Soyinka said it best in a poem:
A pestle! A Warrior who said,
I will not fight,
Yet proved a prophet's call-to-arms against a war.
Or perhaps Ali captured it himself when the Emperor told the King, "Elvis, you have to keep singin' or die to stay big. I'm gonna be big forever." Which means, with luck, the future will bring updated, expanded editions of The Muhammad Ali Reader.