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Book News

A well-chosen mix of tales about 'The Greatest'

'The Muhammad Ali Reader'
Edited by Gerald Early

William Morrow and Co., $15.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

(CNN) -- For nearly 40 years, some of America's most gifted writers have been drawn to examine a single subject. Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and many more have served as literary moths circling the blazing light of the man known as "The Greatest." Their words have been brought together in an extraordinary volume, "The Muhammad Ali Reader".

Editor Gerald Early demonstrates his keen academic eye in his selections for the book. At the same time, his own admiration for their subject shines from every page.

Not all of the 32 essays collected in "The Muhammad Ali Reader" offer a flattering portrait of the man whose shadow still looms over the boxing world. But each reveals a facet of the singular character who refused to be bound by the constraints of his chosen profession. There is Cassius Clay, the brash loudmouth who defied all boxing conventions. There is Muhammad Ali, proselytizer for the Nation of Islam and resister of the Vietnam-era military draft. Those are the sides of the man we expect to read about.

There is also Ali in private, during unguarded moments waiting for his next bout, or traveling the country, or puttering around his farm in Michigan or sitting on the sofa at his mother's house in Louisville. What emerges is a man both more simple and more complex than his various public personae. The essays are arranged chronologically, and offer glimpses of Ali from his first appearance at Madison Square Garden to his life today, afflicted by a disease that may have robbed him of his unique voice but has not affected his dignity.

A nearly random sampling may help capture the flavor of the book. In 1964, Leroi Jones (Imamu Baraka) described the champ this way:

"Clay is not a fake, and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid; they demonstrate that a new and more complicated generation has moved onto the scene."

The sentiment was echoed six years later by Jimmy Cannon:

"The athlete of the decade has to be Cassius Clay, who is now Muhammad Ali. He is all that the sixties were. It is as though he were created to represent them. In him is all the trouble and the wildness and the hysterical gladness and the nonsense and the rebellion and the conflicts of race and the yearning for bizarre religions and the cult of the put-on and the changed values that altered the world and the feeling about Vietnam in the generation that ridicules what their parents cherish."

Few of the essays actually decribe Ali's exploits in the ring. Early expects the reader to know how Cassius Clay won his first title by decking Sonny Liston and how he lost it for defying his government's order to enter the military. He assumes the reader knows about his exile from boxing and how his return was marred by losses to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. In a 1975 Playboy Interview, Ali spends vastly more time espousing the beliefs of Elijah Muhammad than he does recounting the George Foreman fight. The "Thrilla in Manila" serves only as a backdrop for a rumination on Ali's place in boxing history. Of his later bouts, the less said the better.

Sprinkled among the literati are the observations of some men with a deeper understanding of what Ali faced, inside the ring and out. Jackie Robinson, Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres offer insights from their unique perspectives as ex-athletes. They provide a counterpoint to the more cerebral approach of, say, a Norman Mailer, who offers his reflections on the first Ali-Frazier match.

"It can, in fact, be said that heavyweights are always the most lunatic of prizefighters. The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little bit insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility he is. It is like being the big toe of God. You have nothing to measure yourself by."

Hunter S. Thompson profiled Ali when he lost his title to Leon Spinks:

"Ali was doing most of the talking: His mind seemed to be sort of wandering around and every once in a while taking a quick bite out of anything that caught his interest, like a good-humored wolverine ... There was no talk about boxing, as I recall."

"The Muhammad Ali Reader" is a fascinating collection of essays about a man who continues to fascinate us. From the sea of verbiage by and about Muhammad Ali, Gerald Early has chosen well.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

Review of 'More Than A Champion'
August 31, 1998
Salon review: 'King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero'
November 13, 1998
Ali's robe draws highest bid in auction
October 19, 1997

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