This is the start of a regular column, which will examine the profusion of sportsmen’s bio’s that litter the shelves of secondhand stores all over New Zealand. The vast majority are incredibly bad, and we’ll look at them, as well as the occasional gem (John Arlott’s Fred Trueman bio, Fred for example, a personal favourite).
But first up I’m going with one whose bright yellow spine often catches my eye, and one I have a particular affection for. Muhammad Ali collaborated on this flawed, often brilliant book, with Richard Durham, a black journalist who spent six years with Ali prior to the book’s publication in 1976. It glosses over his early years in favour of his life post conversion to Islam, though there are nonetheless illuminating tales about his life growing up in Louisville, stories breathtaking in their ordinariness, and the simplicity of American life before the ’60s (and Ali) came and changed the shape of the world.
I’ve read a few books on Ali, and The Greatest is neither the best (that would be Norman Mailer’s incomparable The Fight) nor the worst (the risible boomer memoir The Tao of Muhammad Ali takes that prize). But it is hugely entertaining, soaked in the hyperbole and whirlwind blur of Ali at his height.
With the amount of energy Ali spent projecting his personality outwards, there’s not a huge amount of insight, though his anecdotes regarding the treatment he received during his exile from boxing (and the nourishment the support from writers and other public figures at the time gave him), and his faith-born fearlessness in the face of a tidal waves of hatred speak to the heart of the man.
The passage I enjoy most is a straight transcript of a conversation between Ali and Joe Frazier as the pair drove in Frazier’s gold Cadillac between Philadelphia and New York. It’s the kind of exchange which would never happen nowadays, with security concerns and publicists and so on, and if it somehow did, on a private jet or whatever, it would never make it into print. Ali admired Frazier to a certain extent (and didn’t consider him an ‘uncle Tom’, like say, Wilt Chamberlain, who he feels never was able to cope with Bill Russell for precisely that reason!), the conversation is wide-ranging, with plenty of debate about how one would beat the other, but underneath it all there’s a similar (if nowhere near as intense) dynamic to Schwarzenegger’s smiling destruction of Lou Ferrigno over breakfast in Pumping Iron. It’s fantastic to read.
The quote below kinda sums it up; it’s Ali’s – completely unbiased, obviously – opinion of himself and the forces which shaped him. His faith is shown only in the most glowing light, and his often nasty treatment of women is glossed over. But the overwhelming courage, both physical and intellectual, that he displayed throughout his career is on full display in a sometimes overblown but always compelling book.
– Duncan Greive