Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Reading about "The Greatest", Muhammad Ali

For reasons I don't quite understand myself, I have been enormously moved by the passing this weekend of Muhammad Ali. I never saw Ali fight, although all of his bouts occurred during my teens and early adulthood when my sports fever was most fervent. I had given up on boxing as "sport" when Bennie "Kid" Paret was killed in the ring by a punch thrown by Emile Griffith on April 1, 1961 and swore I would never again be willing spectator to these gladiatorial combats. I, of course, saw news footage of Ali "floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee" against Sonny Liston in the 1960's and "rope-a-doping" with George Foreman in the 1970's and jousting in TV interviews with sweet, sincere, Joe Frazier, his greatest opponent, but I never actually watched an Ali fight.

I think Joyce Carol Oates comes closest to identifying why Ali holds so much fascination for me in these few days after his death. In a New York Times editorial on Monday, June 6, Oates says that unlike past boxing greats like Joe Louis and Archie Moore, Ali refused to play the role prescribed for black men, even black sports stars in this country, that of being "a credit to their race" through modesty and public restraint. Ali would not play the game. He said, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want." He celebrated his blackness; declared himself beautiful; followed up winning the heavyweight championship of the world by declaring himself a Muslim and follower of Elijah Muhammad and then refused induction into the army because "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

Ali's stance on the war and the draft brought about predictable payback from the white powers that be. He was stripped of his title, arrested, fined, forced to give up his passport and denied the right to make a living by boxing for 3 and a-half of his prime fighting years. America reveres its sport heroes, like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, who gave up parts of their careers to fight in our wars, but it could not tolerate a black sports hero who refused to serve on religious grounds.

Muhammad Ali transcended his violent sport to become one of the true game changers of the 20th century. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a necessary hero of the Civil Rights Movement, but so was Muhammad Ali. Ali showed the world that black people could proudly embrace their blackness, fully and unashamedly, and in doing so he helped the entire country redefine race relations.  It is still a bumpy road we travel in this country on race, but Muhammad Ali is a great and truly American hero because he redefined the game for all of us and forced us to hold up a mirror to our prejudices.

In his later years, Ali was justly celebrated for his accomplishments in and out of the ring and as a humanitarian and ambassador of good will. Sadly the Muhammad Ali of the last quarter century was but a shell of the physical specimen of his youth. His chosen profession brought him to the biggest stages of the world, but left him frail and damaged. One thing all those punches could not dim, however, was the ever present twinkle in his eyes. A twinkle that said, "I'm in here and I'm watching you. Remember me, because I am The Greatest."

One way of honoring the memory of Ali is to make sure that young people get to read and learn about him. To that end, here is an annotated list of good reading about a great man.

For Older Readers

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of the American Hero, by David Remnick

The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Remnick looks at the five formative years of Ali's life, from the time when Cassius Clay won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, to his conversion to Islam and name change, and to his second bout with Sonny Liston after which he proclaimed himself "The Greatest." A great read by one of America's finest journalists.

Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, by Thomas Hauser

The definitive biography of Ali, the book won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Hauser interviews more than two hundred of Ali's family members, friends, opponents and enemies to pain the portrait of the consummate showman.

The Greatest: My Own Story, by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham

Ali in his own words, explaining the decisions he made in his career and including a 10 page conversation with his great rival, Joe Frazier.

The Fight, by Norman Mailer

The greatest boxing writer of all time takes on Ali and Foreman and the story of the "Rumble in the Jungle" bout in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. Great portraits of both fighters and an exiting retelling of the fight itself.

For Middle Readers

The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, by Walter Dean Myers

The great young adult writer Walter Dean Myers offers readers in their early teens a comprehensive view of Ali the boxer and the man. Contains a particularly strong evocation of the toll boxing takes on the body and mind of the athlete as well as the often shady business practices of the sport.

Muhammad Ali: I Am the Greatest, by John Micklos, Jr.

This book is a part of the American Rebels series and focuses on Ali as the conscientious objector refusing induction into the army during the Vietnam War. Ali is portrayed as a passionate man who spoke with conviction about what he believed in and who was willing to suffer the consequences of his controversial positions.

For Younger Readers

The Champ, by Tonya Bolden, illustrated by J. Gregory Christie

The Champ touches on the highlights of the champ's career in and out of the ring. The free-verse format and lively language make it an enjoyable read aloud.

Muhammed Ali: Champion of the World, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Francois Roca

Writing in Booklist, John Green says this biography captures "not only Ali's career and life story, but also his significance." Great oil painting illustrations add to the allure of this book.

For more on books and movies about Ali try this article in Express Sports, by Shahid Judge

I also recommend this newspaper portrait of Ali by veteran journalist, Jerry Izenberg: Muhammad Ali: Why they Called Him The Greatest and Why I Called Him My Friend.

Please add your own favorites in the comments section.