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The Muhammad Ali Reader

The Muhammad Ali Reader

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by Gerald Early

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Muhammad Ali—arguably the finest athlete of the twentieth century and incontestably one of the most famous Americans of his time—is known the world over, not only for his boxing prowess, but for his rebellious courage and resilience against controversy. He has been both underdog and champion, villain and prince, playboy and staunch Muslim, exalted


Muhammad Ali—arguably the finest athlete of the twentieth century and incontestably one of the most famous Americans of his time—is known the world over, not only for his boxing prowess, but for his rebellious courage and resilience against controversy. He has been both underdog and champion, villain and prince, playboy and staunch Muslim, exalted American and punished conscientious objector. He was the ultimate athlete—Heavyweight Champion of the World—and today confronts the physical debilitations of Parkinson's disease.

A one-of-a-kind volume, The Muhammad Ali Reader collects more than thirty of the best writings about this boxing legend in an incredible anthology by the greatest about The Greatest. This is the amazing story of Muhammad Ali—and the world's reaction to him—told by a stellar array of authors, athletes, and social commentators. Floyd Patterson defends Ali's right to criticize America's participation in the Vietnam War; Malcolm X explains how Ali went from "entertainer" to "threat" with his declaration as "a man of race"; Ali himself shares some intimate and definitive thoughts in a Playboy magazine interview; and Gay Talese gives us a front seat on a ride to Cuba, where Ali meets up with Fidel Castro.

Organized by decade, chapters begin with a few opening remarks by Ali himself, and a spectacular sixteen-page photo insert captures The Champ in all his guises. With an introduction by Gerald Early, one of the finest contemporary writers on boxing, The Muhammad Ali Reader confirms Ali's standing as one of the most controversial and charismatic Americans of our time.

Editorial Reviews

Norman Mailer
“He is the very spirit of the 20th Century.”
Washington Post
“A multifaceted portrait of the man known to all as ‘The Greatest.’”
Allen Barra

The Guinness Book of World Records has called Muhammad Ali "The Most Written About Human Being Who Ever Lived," having surpassed, in order, Lincoln, Christ and Napoleon. (This was before People and Entertainment Weekly discovered Leonardo DiCaprio.) For all those oceans of ink, though, it's remarkable how little of genuine and lasting interest on Ali has been preserved between covers.

Muhammad Ali is simply too big a subject for a single writer -- or to put it another way, he has meant too many things to too many people for one writer to reflect them all. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that now, as Ali settles into an early Parkinson's disease-induced old age, we have the best book ever about him, The Muhammad Ali Reader. The writers here include A.J. Liebling, Tom Wolfe, George Plimpton, Jackie Robinson, Murray Kempton, Norman Mailer, Garry Wills, Hunter S. Thompson, Ishmael Reed and Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, to name just a few. Journalist and cultural critic Gerald Early pulled these pieces together, and he seems to have missed almost nothing about Ali that is of interest and even a few things that aren't. Even the bad stuff here is interesting, if only to illustrate the range of responses Ali generated.

The first major magazine piece on Cassius Marcellus Clay was written by the greatest of all boxing writers, A.J. Liebling, in a 1962 issue of the New Yorker. Liebling had the spectacular good fortune to see the young boxer-poet get dumped on his seat by a tough journeyman named Sonny Banks. Clay was raw and unorthodox, but as Liebling wrote, "Honest effort and sterling character backed by solid instruction will carry a man a good way, but unearned natural ability has a lot to be said for it." In the end, Liebling estimates, Clay "was the kind of Hero likely to be around for a long while." P>Two years after getting up to beat Banks, Clay won the heavyweight title by dominating the terrifying Sonny Liston so easily that writers like Nick Tosches are still conjuring up conspiracy theories about it. Overnight he became Muhammad Ali, Black Muslim and anti-war activist. Ali not only inspired great writing, he inspired great overwriting -- the best, of course, coming from Norman Mailer. "He is fascinating," wrote Mailer in King of the Hill, his great essay on the first Ali-Joe Frazier fight, in 1971. "The more we don't want to think about him, the more we are obliged to ... He is America's Greatest Ego ... He is the very spirit of the twentieth century."

The downside is that Ali also inspired a tremendous amount of bad writing, and Early seems to be obliged to include some of it, such as this by Joyce Carol Oates: "When in feckless youth Ali was a dazzling figure combining, say, the brashness of Hotspur and the insouciance of Lear's Fool ..." Garry Wills, summing up the literary world's fixation on Ali, notes that "For some reason, people don't want fighters just to be fighters."

He's right. And yet, no matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise, we really don't want Muhammad Ali to merely be a fighter. Perhaps Ali said it best himself when the Emperor told the King, "Elvis, you have to keep singin' or die to stay big. I'm gonna be big forever." Which means with luck, in the future, we'll have updated, expanded editions of The Muhammad Ali Reader. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One of the most admired and best-known boxers of the 20th century, Ali is the subject of some 30 essays and a poem by an all-star cast of prominent contemporaries, including Tom Wolfe, George Plimpton, Jackie Robinson, Leroi Jones, Irwin Shaw, Norman Mailer, Roger Kahn, Garry Wills, Bert Giamatti, Hunter Thompson, Joyce Carol Oates and Gay Talese. One surprise is that Floyd Paterson, humiliated by Ali in the 1960s and who later called him a coward, staunchly defends Ali's fight decisions, in a piece here written by Paterson and Talese. Mailer offers a turgid essay on the language of the body. Oates, who recalls the pugilist's early fights when he said he "floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee," muses on the "genius" of Ali's boxing in view of his graduating 376th out of 391 in his high school class. Other pieces tackle the subject of Ali's Muslim religion, portraying an idealistic, devout, warm, generous and admirable human being determined to help blacks fight what he describes as the "awful odds" against them. Early (Tuxedo Junction) has assembled a splendid collection. Photos. (June) FYI: Knopf has recently published the translation of a German biography of Ali: More Than a Champion, by Jan Philipp Reemtsma, trans. by John E. Woods (172p $21 ISBN 0-375-40030-3)
Kirkus Reviews
Early (who also edited the recent Body Language: Writers on Sport, p. 168, etc.) compiles a formidable team of contributors to render honor to a man bigger than boxing, bigger than sports. Can you imagine Ecco Press, with its hard-won literary reputation, publishing a book on any other sports figure of our time than Muhammad Ali? No one but Ali has inspired such a rich tapestry of writing from names as significant as Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Ishmael Reed, Tom Wolfe, Murray Kempton, Garry Wills, Wole Soyinka, and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom are represented in this volume. The collection is organized chronologically, beginning with perhaps the best boxing writer of them all, A.J. Liebling, who covered Ali's first pro fight in New York, against the all-but-forgotten Sonny Banks. From there, the collection traces Ali's singular career, from his two defeats of Sonny Liston through his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, his refusal to be drafted for combat in Vietnam and the subsequent stripping of his title, the epic battles with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the slow winding down and his return to the spotlight at the '96 Olympics. On the whole, the writers are so mesmerized by the sociopolitical implications of Ali that they sometimes forget to mention his fighting. Yet that seems appropriate, because Ali truly transcended sport, and much of the fascination of the book resides in watching the champ's image evolve from poetry-spouting wiseguy to faltering elder statesman. In his brief essay, Wills observes dryly, "Modern Pindars sing the weirdest songs about Ali. They cluster around him trying to probe non-existent mysteries." While that might be truthfully said about someof the contributions to this anthology (A. Bartlett Giamatti and Mailer offer particularly abstruse and bizarre thoughts), for the most part, this is a pleasure to read and a deserved and elegant salute to The Greatest.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Muhammad Ali -- or Cassius Clay -- just might be one of the greatest heavyweight champions this country has ever produced.
One thing is certain. He is the most hated.
He is hated because he is a Muslim.
He is also hated because he speaks his mind.
Some members of the sports press don't like either one of these things.
But what they seem to dislike most is that Clay is a Black Muslim and an outspoken black man.

While, in my opinion, some of the things that Clay says and does rate criticism, I do not feel that he deserves much of the bad press which he gets. I know what he is going through. For, during my own career in sports, I came to learn that there are many writers who like tame Negroes who "stay in their place." Of course, by backing up his words with deeds, Clay or Ali has clearly demonstrated where his "place" is -- right up there at the top.

I think it is most significant that some of the writers, even the so-called liberals, do not want to grant this young champion his dues. One of the sports' writing fraternity whom I have considered a liberal for a long time is Howard Cosell. And Cosell has appeared to be in Clay's corner for several years. Yet, in a recent Wide World of Sports television interview with Clay, it struck me that Howard was being quite vicious in the way he tried to sway public opinion to his anti-Clay way of thinking.

Of course there are some liberals who always like to bow to the stands and earn the roar of the approval of the masses. If this is the way Cosell is going, I hate to see it. Clay, however, seems capable of taking care of himself in the exchange of words as well as that of blowsThe Muhammad Ali Reader. Copyright © by Gerald Early. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Norman Mailer
“He is the very spirit of the 20th Century.”

Meet the Author

Gerald Early is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters, professor of English and of African and Afro-American Studies, and director of the Center for Humanities at Washington University. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is the editor of several volumes, including This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s; The Sammy Davis Jr. Reader; Body Language: Writers on Sport; Speech and Power; Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation; and My Soul's High Song: The Collected Works of Countee Cullen, as well as the author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism; One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture; Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood; and Tuxedo Junction.

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Muhammad Ali Reader 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
First of all one thing i love about this book is that they picked Muhammad Ali to write about. Ali was and mabe still is one of the best boxers of all time. The book starts off with Alis first pro fight in new york against Sonny Banks. It went along and followed his career including is only two defeats in his pro boxing career. This book not only covered Alis pro boxing career but also other parts of his life. Like when he Refused to give in to the draft for the Vietnam war. This was a nice touch in this book but at the same time it would have been better if they would of stayed with his fighting career more. It seemed like they got off on the little things rather than exciting things that mattered. This book was alright to read but id only recomend it iff you are a huge fan of Muhammad Ali or if you are interested in the history of great athletes.