Jonathan Eig’s new book traces the remarkable career of Muhammad Ali, capturing his unique legacy.

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“Ali: A Life”

by Jonathan Eig

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 640 pp., $30

In the year preceding Muhammad Ali’s stunning knockout of Sonny Liston that made him the heavyweight champion of the world, civil-rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Ali would have been a celebrity in any historical era, but the charismatic young boxer, then known as Cassius Clay, was a superstar made for the 1960s at the nexus of the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War and the explosive growth of mass media.

Jonathan Eig’s masterful new biography of the champ is both captivating and highly relevant to the current discussions on race in America. The author’s comprehensive research included more than 500 interviews with more than 200 people from the boxer’s life, and material from recently discovered audio interviews with Ali.

Cassius Clay Jr. grew up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1940s, when “colored people” were still relegated to second-class status. Clay’s father and grandfather openly seethed at the injustices, making a strong impression on young Cassius.

Clay started boxing at the age of 12, at a time when the sport reigned supreme. The young boxer’s career took off after he won the lightweight championship in the Golden Gloves tournament in 1959 and a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games.

As his wins accumulated and his fame grew worldwide, Clay was drawn to the Nation of Islam, which rejected the pacifism of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the mainstream civil-rights movement, and opposed integration with the white majority. He eventually changed his name to Muhammad Ali. His conversion to Islam and his trash-talking bravado drew the rancor of sports writers and the boos of boxing fans. He boasted and preened before the press, taunting opponents in catchy rhymes, the most famous of which became iconic: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”

Ali’s decision to refuse induction into the U.S. Army in 1967 — foreshadowing a broader anti-war movement in America — aroused more public vitriol and caused him to be banned from boxing for three years at the peak of his athletic prowess and fame. After his return to the sport, he won the title back twice, reinventing himself and his boxing style in the process. His bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman in Zaire are considered among the best fights in history.

Eig’s boxing descriptions are taut and lively, wisely eschewing the purple prose of the literary set who have written about the sport (Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates and others). He presents boxing in all of its majesty and violence, detailing the brutality that Ali suffered from thousands of blows to the head in his 61 fights and scores of sparring sessions. Ali’s later fights were more like muggings. Slow, overweight and nearly defenseless, Ali endured the punishment because he needed the money. But the damage took its toll in his increasingly slurred speech and tremors from Parkinson’s disease.

Part of the enormous appeal of Ali are his many contradictions. His undeniable greatness was coupled with troublesome flaws. He cheated on his wives openly and often. He derided his foes, sometimes to the point of humiliation. He was notably harder on black opponents than white ones, especially Joe Frazier, whom he called an Uncle Tom, a gorilla and worse.

Equally significant were Ali’s passionate views on race. Decades before Colin Kaepernick (and his NFL brethren) chose to protest police treatment of African Americans, Ali was front and center in the U.S. civil-rights movement with his public stances on racial inequality in the country. After he died in 2016, some writers lauded Ali for “transcending race,” but as Eig notes, that misses the point: “Race was the theme of Ali’s life. He insisted that America come to grips with a black man who wasn’t afraid to speak out, who refused to be what others expected him to be.”

Muhammad Ali was one of the most compelling figures in the 20th century, and Eig does ample justice to capturing his extraordinary and enduring legacy.