One day in early February 1963, the Kentucky boxer Cassius Marcellus Clay was called to Albany to testify before the State Senate committee considering the abolition of professional boxing in New York State. But Clay had been invited because of his poetry — his uncanny habit of predicting the round in which he had won his first 17 fights (“Banks likes to mix/ He must go in six”): How could he know the round, he was asked, was boxing on the level? “Boxing is at the winter of its year,” the 21-year-old explained. “In the time when there were great fighters like Dempsey and Louis, nobody talked against it….In boxing’s winter, people lose interest, but I am here to liven things up.” A year later, after predicting “the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money/That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny,” the 7-to-1 underdog beat the glowering ex-con Sonny Liston for the title in Miami and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Boxing’s winter was over and the livening up was well underway.
It may or may not be a good thing to have a childhood hero, but I know I could not have chosen a better, more exciting or enduring one. Ali never let me down in any of his struggles or endeavors. (Well, maybe the bout with the Japanese wrestler, but it wasn’t really his fault his opponent chose to fight the whole time in a crab stance.)
While boxing books often don’t sell, there can never be too many Ali books, because he remains his own category — inspiring not only sports biographies of his outsized life, but books devoted to his predictive poetry (rediscovered as paleo rap: “Archie’s been livin’ off the fat of the land/ I’m here to give him his pension plan”) and inspirational wisdom (The Tao of Ali), an Ali Reader that touches the surface of the ocean of journalistic words devoted to the Champ and his noble struggles, and many books focused on single segments, themes, or episodes in the Ali narrative: one Academic book, ‘What’s My Name?’ showed how the disrespect shown him by opponents’ calling him Clay instead of his adopted Muslim name led Ali to trash taunt them in the ring, inspiring the refrain for the Rolling Stones song, “Sympathy for the Devil.” From Norman Mailer to Gerald Early, George Plimpton to Wilfrid Sheed, Mark Kram and David Remnick, I have happily read them all. This season, just before the great man passed,added two more bios, a straight life by Thomas Hauser, who has written many Ali-related books; and another by boxing historian Randy Roberts, about the transformation of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali under the religious mentorship of Malcolm X in 1964, the year he eclipsed the Sonny to win the title for the first of three times.
I only saw him once, and when my chance came to speak to him I felt I had to cram in far too much to be coherent. In 1991 at lunch I went to the Barnes & Noble in lower Manhattan where he was appearing for a new biography that day at noon. Ali was over a decade from his last fight, but there was a large and joyful crowd spilling down the steps and onto the sidewalk. We could hear the chants of ‘Ali! Ali! Ali!’ before the nose of his limousine appeared at the corner. Our crowd filled the street chanting too as we saw the man himself standing up through the open sunroof, pumping his fist in a dark bankers’ suit. The long black car parted the fans as it pulled up. Then, cheerfully but steadily he made his way up the stairs to the bookstore.
As he passed me I had my one-second chance to thank him for being my hero— for the trio of Frazier fights, perhaps, for his example of grace and struggle, or for the miracle he worked in Zaire, where even I had doubted he could come back and win the championship, and couldn’t believe next morning when I read the round-by-round accounts my father had lovingly left for me on the stairs; a fight in which he could pause to stick out his tongue at his ringside friend Jim Brown, who’d picked Foreman to win.
There was in fact too much to mention, and all I managed was, “Thanks, Champ” as he passed. He smiled kindly, as if he’d heard it from thousands of other people. He should have. Four years later, his speech and body further in decline from Parkinson’s, I watched him lift the Olympic torch to the world with one great trembling hand and smile, banishing all pity with his look of pride and relief. To me, nothing written about him could be as moving as the eloquence of that moment.