The BOOKS etc. Club
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Published by Pavilion Books
His Life and Times
“Crikey, I know nothing about boxing!” I thought as I looked at this book club selection. Really I didn’t need to even have an interest in it – Muhammad Ali is so much more than just boxing. When Ali died just over a fortnight ago, he was much talked of on the news, but I learnt little about him. I had a vague image, settled like dust in my mind, of his bearing the Olympic flag for London 2012 and I had an awareness that he was a spokesman for peace and was to be admired but I didn’t really know why.
His Life and Times opens with Ali at age 49 in the midst of his daily routine. You’re in the room with him. You’re then introduced to the ‘voices’, which are passages taken verbatim from over two hundred people in Ali’s life (both friendly and not so). The majority of the book is struc-tured this way, making it easily digestible and also unusual. It makes you feel a bit like you’re floating in a shared consciousness, surrounded by voices all wanting to be heard. They speak from a time when Ali was still alive, indeed the book was first published in 1991 when Ali was only two thirds through his life. Reading the text after Ali’s death gives the words a haunting and reflective tone.
I’m doubtful to be target readership – I’m pretty girly, I raise an eyebrow at excess testostero-ne, I am squeamish and avoid confrontation. I’m too young to have been aware of Ali or his contemporaries as sportsmen or to have known the segregated USA of the 1960’s. But this isn’t just a ‘boxing’ book, nor a ‘political history’ book. One of its most enlightening aspects is learning about Ali from the women in his life; the characters with whom I could empathise. Like reading Ali’s mother remembering how he “went around on his tip-toes all the time”. Mums of-ten reminisce about their children by looking for signifiers of the adult that their child has be-come. My mother’s the same even though I’m not a legendary sportsperson. Ali’s wives (bar one, conspicuous in her absence) and daughters offer their thoughts and memories and I found them especially engaging. As much for what they don’t say as what they do.
I now understand a bit more about the world of boxing – enough to know that it’s not one that particularly appeals to me. We hear a lot of fighting talk, of misshapen features, busted eye sockets and bloodied mouthguards. Then there’s the paybacks, revenges and grudges (like how Ali brutally demanded Ernie Terrell call him by his Islamic name over Cassius Clay, or how Joe Frazier unsuccessfully clamoured for Ali to make good on his taunt that he would crawl across the ring if he were beaten). Even then, there is a lot of humour – fabulously funny memories like how a rising Cassius blagged a Life magazine photoshoot by pretending that he trained underwater. I think it is impossible to describe a fighter without direct comparison to his peers; how else do you delve into a sport that is based solely on pitting one individual against another. Halfway through the book we meet George Foreman. A name, I must admit, that mainly makes me think of grilled food. Poor old George – he’s always facing unpredictable op-ponents. First Ali, and now I fear for the future of his fat reducing grill since health research suggests that fat was never a bad thing in the first place!
Growing up with an awareness of Muhammad Ali as a great spokesperson for equality and peace, it was hard to read of his associations with the separatist Nation of Islam in the ‘60s. It’s probably because I’m not a child of those times and will never truly understand the ‘way it was’ and the fight that needed to happen to break the norms. What I do recognise here is a man in his early 20s trying to find his voice. We all form more extreme views as we’re trying to build a sense of self, so in that way Ali is no exception to the rest of us mortals. The big differ-ence is that Ali had to endure three enforced years forming himself during his lengthy and pain-ful ordeal pursuing conscientious objector status. A bit like Forrest Gump, he pops up in count-less moments of history – the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights movement, the boycotted Moscow Olympics, South African apartheid. So my inner history geek was enthralled.
Then there’s the surprise stuff, which all shows Ali as a trailblazer of sporting life to come. Like how he lectured on college campuses, appeared on Broadway, his smear campaign against Joe Frazier, his gaudy bejewelled robe which was a gift from Elvis. In the last quarter of a century, when this book signs off, sport has been through a lot. We’ve seen dodgy doctors, dodgy drugs and the sportsperson rising to superstar status. Exploring these events after a pause of twenty-five years makes you realise how revolutionary everything that occurred in Ali’s life and times was. So I suppose it’s inevitable that you read this book through a haze of hindsight, looking past the doping scandals of cycling and athletics and the dietary science of the Australi-an cricket team cutting out sugar. I wonder how Muhammad Ali would have fared in today’s sporting world of schedules, contracts, diets and technology. Would he have been greater still or would he have been constricted and compressed by it all? I wonder.
Cassius Clay Sr gave a great piece of advice to his young son: “Always confront the things you fear, try to be the best at whatever you do”. We could all do with living by those words and also learning more about and from the life and times of Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times is published by Pavilion Books at £12.99; order a copy from BOOKS etc. for £7.68 with free delivery HERE
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