By 1980, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, Muhammad Ali had surpassed Lincoln, Christ, and Napoleon as the most written-about person in history. My shelves hold no fewer than seven biographies of Cassius Clay- Muhammad Ali, and that’s not counting his own ghostwritten bio, The Greatest. Nevertheless, Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times is the first book to account for Ali’s entire professional career and make some sense of the financial and medical woes that have plagued him for the past 10 years.
Muhammad Ali is lovingly compiled and exhaustively researched. It’s a solid, respectful, drably written piece of work-in other words, it suggests none of the spontaneity and brashness that attracted us to Ali in the first place. The problem isn’t so much the ”life” as the ”times.” In an effort to place Ali in the context of his era, Hauser, whose previous books include Missing and The Black Lights, seems to have quoted, usually at length, nearly everyone who ever came in contact with the Champ. The result often reads more like a testimonial than a biography.
As Ali reminds us, ”When you want to talk about who made me, you talk to me. Who made me is me.” Hauser does on occasion talk to Ali, and whatever medical problems the former champ has suffered (and it seems that a definitive diagnosis is impossible just now), they don’t stop him from discussing his own shortcomings-his abuse of his body, his infidelities, his appalling treatment of Joe Frazier-with remarkable candor.
More to his credit, Hauser occasionally goes to a source outside Ali’s sycophantic circle for a glimpse at the dark side of the Champ’s nature. The Ali who spent hours visiting hospitals and prisons could also taunt black opponents in terms so vicious a Klansman might have shrunk from using them. Hauser doesn’t say it, but the reader is left with the thought that Ali’s apparent brain damage may be Joe Frazier’s revenge for slurs so nasty they sent Frazier’s children home from school in tears.
If Muhammad Ali accomplishes nothing else, at least it dispels some of the gloomy atmosphere in the media about the greatest of all heavyweight boxers. Ali is, finally, happily married, his many children seem to hold him in great esteem, and he is financially well off, if not the fabulously wealthy man he should be. There is even the possibility that his mental condition may improve. So, why all the crepe-hanging? In the words of the only fighter to take away his title in the ring, Leon Spinks: ”(Why) should I feel sorry for Ali? Whatever happens, he’ll always be Muhammad Ali.” B