HE CALLED himself “The Greatest” in and out of the boxing ring and very few people the world over argued, but a brilliant new book makes it clear that not everything about the late Muhammad Ali was totally admirable, says Chief Writer RON REED:
NOBODY’S PERFECT, they say. Muhammad Ali was certainly no exception. That’s never really been in dispute despite his status as one of the world’s most admired and significant figures of the second half of the 20th century. Even those of us who grew up watching in awe, bordering on hero-worship, as his stupendous boxing career and tumultuous personal journey unfolded, were often left wondering whether some of it might have been too good to be true, not that you worried about it because there was just so much to like about such a unique personality.
As often happens, it has taken until his death at 74 in the middle of last year for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – if that’s not too much to expect – to emerge. Ali’s life and times have been documented often but never more comprehensively or brilliantly than the recently-published ALI: A LIFE (Simon & Schuster) by American journalist Jonathan Eig. Superbly written with well over 500 pages of fascinating detail based on enormous research – more than 500 interviews with key figures in his life, FBI records that have never been made public before, plus revealing new computer methodology for analysing boxing matches – this is not only one of the best-ever sports books but an insightful social essay about a deeply troubled era for human rights in America.
It is a bittersweet read, especially if you’ve always been a smitten fan. That’s because the irresistible charisma and the physical and cultural courage that made him so popular were counter-balanced by his fair share of character flaws, stripped bare here to the point where you find yourself – unwillingly – slightly adjusting lifelong levels of more or less unfettered admiration to accommodate a certain level of sadness as his image is subtly but surely reworked. While he fully acknowledges all of his subject’s many positives, Eig is certainly no hagiographer, zeroing in on Ali’s countless infidelities and shameless treatment of the first three of his four wives, his colossal vanity, his profligate spending habits and inability to manage the many millions he earned or to prevent con-men and urgers – hello, promoter Don King – or even his beloved Nation of Islam ripping it off him. Against that, he had an innate kindness and simply gave away a lot of money.
But there was also a mean streak that manifested itself in belittling opponents, especially Joe Frazier, who he famously fought three times – and denigrated in racist terms — in one of the great sports rivalries of all time. Even to friends and loved ones, he could be cruel. But, notes Eig, “He always remained warm and genuine, a man of sincere feeling and wit.”
Post-career Ali’s neurological deterioration was clear for most to see as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease or a variation of it, but Eig presents strong evidence that his decline was in progress at least a decade before he finally called it quits in late 1981, while a doctor suggested he was affected by it when he fought Frazier for the last time in 1975 and therefore for 15 subsequent bouts.
Years later, a statistical analysis completed by CompuBox Inc found that from 1970 Ali was a different fighter. CompuBox found that in 16 fights – in which complete films have survived – from 1960 to 1967, Ali was at his best, landing 2,245 punches and getting hit by opponents only 1,414 times. Put another way he did 61.4 per cent of the hitting. Over the rest of his career, he took as much punishment as he gave and even that 50-50 ratio wasn’t as good as it seemed because the vast majority of his punches were jabs while his opponents employed more hooks and uppercuts which tend to do greater damage. By the end he could hardly hit back at all. Aged almost 40, and having taken many thousands of blows to the head, he lost three of his last four fights and, statistically, was lucky to have got away with points verdicts on two or three previous occasions against fighters who scarcely belonged in the ring with him.
In all, Ali fought 56 times for only five defeats, a record that would look more formidable if he had known when to stop while he still had his wits about him, at least to some extent. But even without that, it reads more flatteringly than perhaps it should according to Eig, who suggests there were fights when judges ruled in his favour perhaps simply because he was Muhammad Ali. Be that as it may, boxing has never seen anybody quite like him and never will again. Whatever his flaws might have been in or out of the ring, Ali was able to tell the world over and over, “I am the greatest of all time,” and there were very few dissenters.
President Barack Obama said he was “… a man who fought for what was right. A man who fought for us. He stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and on the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognise today. Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.”
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.