Ali continues to be literary muse

The boxer, who died earlier this month, captivates writers with his experiences in sports, religion and tragedy

A selection of books (above) on the late boxer Muhammad Ali (left).
A selection of books on the late boxer Muhammad Ali (above). PHOTOS: ACTION IMAGES/MSI/FILE PHOTO, NEW YORK TIMES
A selection of books (above) on the late boxer Muhammad Ali (left).
A selection of books (above) on the late boxer Muhammad Ali.

NEW YORK • 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 age 74 is unlikely to diminish his power as a literary muse.

Mr David Hirshey, senior vice-president and executive editor of HarperCollins, called Ali "the perfect prism through which to view sports, race, religion, politics, celebrity, comedy, tragedy".

Mr 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 outsized star of a £75 (S$145) tome (GOAT: A Tribute To Muhammad Ali) that was covered in silk and leather and cost up to US$7,000 (S$9,520).

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 last Friday.

Another Ali book by Hauser, Muhammad Ali: A Tribute To The Greatest - a re-issue 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 next year.

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," he said. "I found some of it in the archives of people who interviewed him over the years, who left their notes and tapes, some in court records, and some in interviews.

"His wives had never really discussed what their lives were like with him."

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 and bad ways. I think people will be shocked by the book."

While he 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 recognise this, but most of their relationship was clandestine, so the only way to get to it was to systematically go through newspapers and FBI 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."

Hauser, a long-time boxing writer who spent considerable time with Ali in the 1980s and 1990s, reflected with sadness that the world was able to watch Ali deteriorate over the years, in contrast with world figures such as former US president Ronald Reagan and former British prime minister 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.

"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."


• Muhammad Ali: A Tribute To The Greatest ($45.69) is available for pre-order at Books Kinokuniya. Ali Vs Inoki (US$10.96 or S$14.90) and Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali And Malcolm X (US$18.75) are available at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'Ali continues to be literary muse'. Subscribe