Earlier this year, on the occasion of the release of Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, Davis Miller’s second biography of Muhammad Ali, Financial Times political columnist Janan Ganesh considered the question of what made Ali such an appealing subject for so many writers.
It’s true: there’s no shortage of great literature on “The Greatest of All Time.” There’s The Tao of Muhammad Ali Davis’s first bio of his friend and hero, which was also made into an opera. There’s The Fight, Norman Mailer’s book about the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the legendary 1974 contest between Ali and George Foreman held at Kinshasa in Zaire. In Esquire, Gay Talese captured a meeting between Ali and Fidel Castro. New Yorker editor David Remnick penned the biography, King of the World, which in 2000 was made into a TV movie. And Toni Morrison was drawn to helping Ali with The Greatest: My Own Story, his own biography, released in 2015.
Ganesh theorizes that those authors and others were drawn to Ali not because of the invincible image he projected, but because of the darker side of his character, the flaws and contradictions of an often sanctified icon who was in fact human–allegedly often mean-spirited, a womanizer, and a negligent father to some of his kids.
A close reading of the prose devoted to him suggests that writers are drawn to something different: not his heroism but nearly the opposite of that, his moral ambiguity. There has always been a difference between Ali as perceived by the multitudes and Ali as rendered by embedded scribes. They pick up on a cruel streak that spurred him to hound Liston as someone less than human and Frazier, a product of pre-civil rights South Carolina, as an “Uncle Tom”. Frazier’s ordeal at the hands of people who took their cue from Ali included death threats and the necessity of police protection for his family. It is tougher to read about than the most heinous slugfest inside a ring…
…Long-form writers deal in nuance, the teasing out of contradictions over thousands of words. Ali was the ideal muse. Other fighters were too monstrous (Liston, Tyson) or too vanilla (Patterson, Marciano), at least outwardly. Ali’s blend of the chivalric and the malevolent, charm and braggadocio, made for rich copy. For outsiders to the sport, his racial and religious consciousness, right down to the change of name from Cassius Clay after the first Liston fight, is what makes him interesting. But it is poorly understood. Writers find him magnetic precisely because he was never a saint.