Muhammad Ali, the greatest athlete of the 20th century, was to writers of his time what the Madonna and Child were to painters of the Renaissance. Everyone took a crack at Ali. Here at The Stacks, we’re been honored to curate Ali stories that previously weren’t available online. Our collection makes up but a small sampling of the trove of great writing about Ali, but it’s enough for you to appreciate why Ali was a reporter’s dream.
The brash young boxer, who celebrated his 22d birthday last week, may not be a card-carrying Muslim. But, unquestionably, he sympathizes with Muslim aims and, by his presence at their meetings, lends them prestige. He is the first nationally famous Negro to take an active part in the Muslim movement. Yet he still has not formally announced support for the Muslims.
He will not discuss the subject publicly. He will talk about his punches and his speed and his good looks, but he will not talk about the movement.
Clay has a secretary who carefully screens all his calls. Clay is not the only fighter in the world with a secretary. But he may be the only fighter in the world whose secretary’s last name is, simply, “X.” The secretary has a real name, too, but, as one of his friends says, “He went to Muslim school. He earned his X.”
Just before the bell for the seventh round, Cassius Clay got up to go about his job. Suddenly, he thrust his arms straight up in the air in the signal with which boxers are accustomed to treat victory and you laughed at his arrogance. No man could have seen Clay that morning at the weigh-in and believed that he could stay on his feet three minutes that night. He had come in pounding the cane Malcolm X had given him for spiritual support, chanting “I am the greatest, I am the champ, he is a chump.” Ray Robinson, that picture of grace who is Clay’s ideal as a fighter, pushed him against the wall and tried to calm him, and this hysterical child turned and shouted at him, “I am a great performer, I am a great performer.”
Suddenly almost everyone in the room hated Cassius Clay. Sonny Liston just looked at him. Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he was our cop; he was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line and he was just waiting until his boss told him it was time to throw this kid out.
In the fall of 1969, when the New York Mets finished their championship baseball season in Chicago, Muhammad and I and Tom Seaver had dinner one night at a quiet restaurant called the Red Carpet, a place that demanded a tie of every patron except the dethroned heavyweight champion.
The conversation was loud and animated, dominated by Muhammad as always, and about halfway through the meal, pausing for breath, he turned to Seaver and said, “Hey, you a nice fella. You a sportswriter?”
When we left the restaurant, we climbed into Muhammad’s car, an Eldorado coupe, pink with white upholstery, with two telephones. Two telephones in a coupe! “C’mon, man,” he said to Seaver. “Use the phone. Where’s your wife? In New York? Well, call her up and say hello.”
Seaver hesitated, and Muhammad said, “I’ll place the call. What’s your number?”
Seaver gave Muhammad the phone number, and Muhammad reached the mobile operator and placed the call, and when Nancy Seaver picked up the phone, she heard a deep voice boom. “This is the baddest cat in the world, and I’m with your husband and five hookers.”
Nancy Seaver laughed. Her husband had told her he was having dinner with the champ.
Muhammad Ali, at age 35, exerts the kind of power perhaps no other black man has ever had in this country. He tells the white majority things it doesn’t like to hear. Just as Martin Luther King did. But there is a difference in results. Martin Luther King, who preached peace, scared whitey. He scared whitey away. Muhammad Ali, who practices violence, scares whitey, too, but whitey always comes back because Ali is safe. Ali is an athlete, a champion.
As he gets older, the tendency is to think we have heard everything he has to say—once, twice, a thousand times. But on those rare occasions when his creative juices rouse themselves, the product is tougher, more biting than anything that has come before it.
It is as if he is trying to drive off the people who see him as an entertainer first and a boxer second. If that is so, Angelo Dundee, who trained him for all but the first of his 56 pro fights, can understand why.
“He’s already done everything,” Dundee says. “He has forced himself to the top of emotion—how many times? This will be his 19th defense. Maybe he’s had it. Does anybody think he could go through what Ali has gone through? Ali is a champ, he’s a clown, he is anything he has to be to make money. But after awhile, it gets thin. Maybe he’s trying to stop being anything but the champion.”
When I heard Ali had agreed to fight Holmes, the first thought I had was that Ali would be killed. The punch was five years gone, his hand speed had been mediocre over his last half dozen fights, and he’d been getting hit by people like Leon Spinks.
I didn’t see that two years in the pasture could have helped any of that. What figured to be left to him, at almost 39 years old, was the chin. Enough to keep him up a long time after he should go down.
The second thought I had was that I didn’t want to see it happen, and even if there was enough grace in that night to make me wrong once, there was nothing in it to make me wrong twice. And if the talk afterwards’ about thyroid pills and a fight with Mike Weaver is more than talk, I won’t be there. Ali might take the chance again. I won’t.
I couldn’t watch it again. Ali without his talent, growing old in one long night, people everywhere without words, growing old with him. In the casino you see Ray Robinson posing in pictures with people who remember him—you can’t imagine Ali like that.
He was dressed in white, all white: new leather tennis shoes, over-the-calf cotton socks, custom-tailored linen slacks, thick short-sleeved safari-style shirt crisp with starch. I told him I thought white was a better color for him than the black he often wore those days.
He motioned for me to sit, but didn’t speak. His mouth was tense at the corners; it looked like a kid’s who has been forced by a parent or teacher to keep it closed. He slowly lowered himself into a chair beside the window. I took a seat across from him and laid my magazines on the table between us. He immediately picked them up, produced a pen, and began signing. He asked, “What’s your name?” and I told him.
He continued to write without looking up. His eyes were not glazed as I’d read, but they looked tired. A wet cough rattled in his throat. His left hand trembled almost continuously. In the silence around us, I felt a need to tell him some of the things I’d been wanting to say for years.
“Champ, you changed my life,” I said.* It’s true. “When I was a kid, I was messed up, couldn’t even talk to people. No kind of life at all.”
He raised his eyes from an old healthy image of himself on a magazine cover. “You made me believe I could do anything,” I said.
He was watching me while I talked, not judging, just watching. I picked up a magazine from the stack in front of him. “This is a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated when I was in college,” I said. “It’s about the ways you’ve influenced my life.”
“What’s your name?” he asked again, this time looking right at me. I told him. He nodded. “I’ll finish signing these in a while,” he said. He put his pen on the table. “Read me your story.”
Greatness trickled from the corpus of his image, his career now like a gutshot that was going to take its time before killing. His signing to fight Larry Holmes, after retiring a second time, provoked worried comment. After watching some of Ali’s films, a London neurologist said that he was convinced Ali had brain damage. Diagnosis by long distance, the promoters scoffed. Yet among those in his camp, the few who cared, there was an edginess. They approached Holmes, saying, “Don’t hurt him, Larry.” Moved, Holmes replied: “No way. I love Ali.” With compassion, he then took Ali apart with the studied carefulness of a diamond cutter; still, not enough to mask the winces at ringside. Ali failed to go the route for the first time in his career. Incredibly, fourteen months later, in 1981, his ego goaded him to the Bahamas and another fight, the fat jellied on his middle, his hand-speed sighing and wheezing like a busted old fan; tropic rot on the trade winds. Trevor Berbick, an earnest pug, outpointed him easily. Afterward, Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali from the start and had to be talked into showing up for this one, watched him slumped in the dressing room, then turned away and rubbed his eyes as certain people tried to convince Ali that he had been robbed and that a fourth title was still possible.
The public prefers, indeed seems to insist on, the precedent set by Rocky Marciano, who quit undefeated, kept self-delusion at bay. Ali knew the importance of a clean farewell, not only as a health measure but as good commercial sense. His ring classicism had always argued so persuasively against excessive physical harm, his pride was beyond anything but a regal exit. But his prolonged decline had been nasty, unseemly. Who or what pressured him to continue on? Some blamed his manager, Herbert Muhammad, who had made millions with Ali. Herbert said that his influence wasn’t that strong.
Two years after that last fight, Ali seemed as mystified as everyone else as to why he hadn’t ended his career earlier. His was living with his third wife, the ice goddess Veronica, in an L.A. mansion, surrounded by the gifts of a lifetime—a six-foot hand carved tiger given to him by Teng Hsiao-ping, a robe given to him by Elvis Presley. Fatigued, his hands tremoring badly, he sat in front of the fire and could only say: “Everybody git lost in life. I just git lost, that’s all.”
I’d expected the disease to have robbed him of the vitality that once exploded from him. I’d expected the disease to represent the ultimate cruel triumph of the world that had always wanted the black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, to shut the hell up.
But up close, I am discovering that his affliction has taken nothing away, none of the energy, none of the wit, none of the pride; it has only bound all of it, captured and constricted it, with the entirely unexpected result that, as an aeon of geologic forces can compress a large vein of coal into a very small diamond, whatever was the essence of Muhammad Ali is now somehow magnified. He is at last what he always pretended to be but never was: the Greatest. For it must be axiomatic that if someone calls himself the Greatest, as Ali did for years, he cannot possibly be; the Greatest would never have to label himself as such. Only when he was forced to stop proclaiming his greatness did it become possible.
Never has he been more mortal—struck dumb and slow, crumbs spilling down his shirt—and never have we deemed him more godly.
Spanning the World Wide Web, you must head to Sports Illustrated and dive into their tremendous Ali coverage. Esquire Classic has a cool compilation of their best Ali writing as well. For more, consider these:
“Ali, Spinks and the Battle of New Orleans” by Vic Ziegel (New York, 1978)
“Watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali” by Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, July 31, 1979)
“The Invention of Muhammad Ali” by David Remnick (The New Yorker, 1998)
“Ali Now” by Cal Fussman (Esquire, 2003)
“How Muhammad Ali Conquered Fear and Changed the World” by Mikal Gilmore (Men’s Journal, 2011)
Meanwhile, if you want to dig deeper still, George Plimpton and Norman Mailer famously wrote books about Ali. Plimpton’s had bright moments, particularly when describing Mailer in Zaire, and Mailer’s book, The Fight, is typical Mailer, full of brilliance and bullshit. Your enjoyment will depens on your willingness to wade through the bullshit to get to the brilliance.
There are a ton of other books on Ali, and a hip university press or even The Library of America would be smart to publish an anthology of great newspaper and magazine writing on him, because there’s still room for a definitive collection. Gerald Early edited a fine collection in The Muhammad Ali Reader, but there’s even more that can be done.
Here’s a sampler to get you started:
Man of Destiny by John Cottrell
Black is Best: The Riddle of of Cassius Clay by Jack Olsen
... Sting Like Bee by Jose Torres
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram
Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon by Mike Ezra
Facing Ali: 15 Writers/15 Stories by Stephen Brunt
Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Pictures by Wilfred Sheed and Neil Leifer
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali by Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adams
Greatest of All Time the lavish Taschen treatment
Also consider The Tao of Muhammad Ali by Davis Miller, Bouts of Mania by Richard Hoffer, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali by Walter Dean Myers, Sound and Fury by Dave Kindred, and King of the World by David Remnick.
The King is Dead. Long Live the King.