Tag Archives: Cassius Clay

Ali – A Life

cc

Ali – A Life
By Jonathan Eig
Simon & Schuster – £25.00

     To be great you must suffer, you must pay the price.

                                                                             (‘No Quarrel’)

     I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident,           cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.

                                                                             (Preface)

    I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

                                                                             (‘No Quarrel’)

     The image he fashioned was both romantic and thrilling: a young man who believed             that if he worked hard enough he could become the world’s heavyweight champ, that             he could have it all.

                                                                             (‘It’s Show Business’)

Reading this altogether terrific book on the life of Muhammad Ali by Jonathan Eig, really is something of a literary, topsy-turvy ride through the wide-open, abstract abeyance of nigh everything potentially great about the United States. As well as perhaps everything not so great. Like Elvis Presley, that other American icon whose life and work traversed both language and time, Muhammad Ali was, and will continue to remain an acute, if not infinite representation of America’s (current) seething, troubled, political waters.

A man mired in suave solipsism, along with a sporting prowess like no other, he who did indeed float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, was many things – for which read: many a contentious soul – to many people. An idiosyncratic, if not inflammatory issue, Eig has fundamentally brought to bear at the end of the chapter which gleans its title from the very same, notorious dictum which the boxer himself oft asserted: ””For when Cassius Clay declares, ‘I am the greatest,’ he is not just thinking about boxing,” wrote Alex Poinsett in Ebony. ”Lingering behind those words is the bitter sarcasm of Dick Gregory, the shrill defiance of Miles Davis, the utter contempt of Malcolm X. He smiles easily, but, behind it all…is a blast furnace of race pride” (Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee’).

”A blast furnace of race pride” is surely something of a colossal understatement, that among other things, Ali – A Life makes abundantly clear throughout.

As although these 539 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Appendix and Index) are compartmentalized into three distinct parts, the underlying and not so much subliminal thread remains the fact that Ali was black.
And America was at war with itself. Still is.

At war with/over the current, contentious, high-octane yet persistently pertinent issue of race. Or, to put it a little more bluntly, racism.

In relation to the impending fight between (Ali’s so-called slave-name) Clay and Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston in the book’s tenth chapter ‘It’s Show Business’ for instance, the author writes: ”Writing in the Chicago Defender, the nation’s most influential black newspaper, columnist Al Monroe tried to rally support for Liston, saying that the prejudice of white reporters contributed to the champs reputation as a menace to society. Monroe offered examples of Liston’s sharp wit and intelligent answers to questions […].

”What fans want is a champion they can look up to,” wrote Monroe.”Will Cassius Clay prove to be such a man outside the ring?” Clay’s taunting of Liston was ”most unbecoming of a champion,” Monroe continued. ”Would Clay hold the title with dignity or would he be merely a king’s jester and not a crowned head with the sovereignty that the position calls for?”

That the author – by way of Monroe – has the overt pertinacity to shed light on what is or isn’t ”becoming of a champion,” does, in and of itself, trigger an array of predominant US social and ideological questioning. The sometimes dark density of which, Jonathan Eig himself goes on to succinctly yet wholeheartedly regale.

A quality which further substantiates this book’s more than anchored political gravitas. So much of which is underlined by the subject’s ever increasing politicism during the early to mid-sixties; as so sanguinarily fought through the gloves of Clay becoming the Ali becoming ”the greatest.”

Most notably, that of the then Civil Rights Movement, which throughout these fifty-six chapters, the contributing writer to The Wall Street Journal most rightfully brings to the fore on numerous occasions: ”All over America black activists were organizing voter-registration drives, marches, and sit-ins to improve living conditions and promote equality. The unemployment rate for black men was double the rate for whites, these activists reminded people. School integration was still being impeded in many southern states. In the fall of 1962, James Meredith needed a force of 320 federal marshalls to reach his dormitory as he enrolled as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. President Kennedy called for calm but didn’t get much as armed mobs attacked the federal troops in what historian C. Vann Woodward called ”an insurrectionary assault on officers and soldiers of the United States government and the most serious challenge to the union since the Civil War.”

Hmm, sounds like (relatively) recent events in Charlottsville.
Lest President Donald Trump equate ratings with the inexorable ideology of Burn Baby Burn.
Surely not?

Surely the handsome and ferociously witty, intelligent, Ali, would’ve made an out and out mockery of the unspeakably odious Trump? After all, he did once declare: ”I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

Now there’s a pugilist philosophy made in satirical heaven; which, given the conclusion of the above quote with regards the Civil Rights Movement – ”They said white America would never give up power unless black America made them do it – does kind of make one think. Especially in light of the degree to which Ali evoked ”a sense of merriment and mystery, an irresistible combination for the media […].”

Exceedingly readable, this almost un-put-downable book packs one hell of a powerful punch, right unto the beige face of many of its mediocre contemporaries. As the American filmmaker, Ken Burns, has said: ”Finally after so many works focusing on this fight or that, the whole, is presented here.”

To be sure, this rather exemplary book will do Ali’s memory (and everything he stood for) proud. There again, we are talking about a best selling author whose previous books include Luckiest Man and Opening Day. While subject wise, we are talking about one of the sharpest and most charismatic of total, total talents, to have ever walked the earth.

For Ali was the champ – and probably always will be.

David Marx

 

Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times

imagesWKKDC46J

Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times
By Thomas Hauser
Portico/Anova Books – £11.99

”I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the same time my people here are being brutalized and mistreated, and this is really the same thing that’s happening over in Vietnam. So I’m going to fight it legally, and if I lose, I’m just going to jail. Whatever the punishment, whatever the prosecution is for standing up for my beliefs […].”

Never short of a suave, sparkling sentence or two, it goes without saying that the greatest fighter ever, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, wowed audiences in a plethora of arenas – both inside as well as outside the ring. For apart from being a stupendous boxer, he was nigh irresistible to (obviously) watch and (curiously) listen to.

The above quotation being not only a perfect example, but a mere tiny tip of the literary iceberg contained within these 516 pages.

To be sure, Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times – which has been described by The Times as: ”A superb book; hilarious, sad, moving and hopeful” – ticks an array of boxes so far as a really good and fulfilling read is concerned. As it is indeed, sad, moving and hopeful. But like Ali himself, the book is also in your face, somewhat monumental and rather provocative; much to the credit of its author, Thomas Hauser, which ought hardly be surprising, as apart from being a Pulitzer Prize nominee, Hauser has written a number of books (among them: The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing, Brutal Artistry and Mark Twain Remembers).

Admittedly however, some of the more idiosyncratically entertaining writing, was already written for him by Clay himself. All the author had to do was chronologically indulge his labour of love, and capture the full essence of a man to whom the title, ‘bigger than life,’ surely belongs and was surely never more warranted.

For instance, I found the opening gambit of this review in the seventh chapter, ‘Exile,’ which alone, is far more stimulating than a menagerie of entire books I’ve recently read. Reason being, a mere seven paragraphs later, Hausen once again quotes Ali on the subject of hate: ”I don’t hate nobody and I ain’t lynched nobody. We Muslims don’t hate the white man. It’s like we don’t hate a tiger; but we know that a tiger’s nature is not compatible with people’s nature since tigers love to eat people. So we don’t want to live with the tigers. It’s the same with the white man. The white race attacks black people. They don’t ask what’s our religion, what’s our belief? They just start whupping heads. They don’t ask you, are you Catholic, are you a Baptist, are you a Black Muslim, are you a Martin Luther King follower, are you with Whitney Young? They just go whoop, whoop, whoop! So we don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.”

Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times will undoubtedly appeal to the entire boxing fraternity; although there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever, why it ought not also appeal to those to whom boxing means very little. Or next to nothing.

Just one reason being, the subject’s outspoken humanity.  What John Lennon endeavoured to attain for world peace, Muhammad Ali at least tried to attain for Black Human Rights (alongside many other issues).

If nothing else, Ali believed – which to my mind, surely places him alongside the likes of Martin Luther King and South Africa’s Archbishop Desmod Tutu.

David Marx