After conducting more than 500 interviews, poring over previously unreleased government documents, as well as countless hours of discovered audiotape interviews, author Jonathan Eig compiles the first complete biography, from birth to death, of Muhammad Ali, revealing the gripping and complex life of a dazzling athlete and cultural icon.
Muhammad Ali is one of the most well-documented people in history, certainly the most documented athlete. There are books, documentaries, Hollywood movies, podcasts, and countless articles all focused on the iconic boxer.
And there is a reason no one has previously attempted to condense Ali’s life into one book, or at least no one’s done it successfully. Even the quickest scan over the great man’s life reveals so many pivotal moments, both in and outside the ring, that trying to fit it all into a single biography without it spanning 10 volumes is an unenviable task.
Step forward Jonathan Eig, who expertly tells Ali’s life and story in remarkable detail … and manages to keep it within 540 pages!
Ali: A Life is an uncomplicated chronological biography, from Ali’s (then Cassius Clay) birth in Louisville, Kentucky, up to his death at the age of 74 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
It chronicles his childhood and first forays into boxing, taking us with Clay to the 1960 Rome Olympics. We are alongside him as he turns professional and starts to make a name for himself in the heavyweight division. And of course, we are at Clay’s training camp and subsequently ringside for his breakthrough fight against Sonny Liston.
We marvel at his prodigious talent, fast hands, and nimble feet. We are left in awe at his good looks, chiseled physique, and sharp wit. Eig takes us throughout Ali’s boxing career, including his epic showdowns with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton, as well as less glorious nights – particularly in the latter stages of his career – against Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and finally Trevor Berbick.
But as we all know, Ali’s story is not confined to the boxing ring. His conversion to the Nation of Islam – and the controversy it caused – is well documented. His relationships with Elijah Muhammad and his son Wallace are some of the most fascinating aspects of this book.
Indeed, Ali’s personal relationships in general, particularly his marriages, are the parts I found most interesting as they help us understand Ali the man – flawed, naive, impressionable, as well as supremely confident, brash and quick-witted. Above all else, Ali was a people-pleaser, whether to those in his inner circle or the average fan on the street.
Eig spends a significant part of the book focused on Ali’s draft refusal, which to me makes a lot of sense given the seismic consequences his stance not only had on the shaping of his boxing career, but on America’s social landscape. It was at this stage when Ali became more than just a prizefighter – he became a divisive and at-the-time controversial figure central to the fight for civil rights.
As well as documenting in detail Ali’s unrivalled athletic status and influential role as an activist, Eig keeps a close eye on the boxer’s deteriorating health, revealing a number of alarming stats, including blows to the head, that undoubtedly led to the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
As Ali refuses to heed to the warning signs and continues to fight well beyond what his health would allow, we witness the devastating effects this has on his immediate and long-term health – effects that would ultimately lead to his death.
Ali: A Life is far from a one-dimensional, glowing tribute. Of course, it reveals the widespread, transcendent impact Ali had on society and the benchmarks he set as a professional fighter.
But it also delves in to his many flaws and imperfections, his troubling relationships with his wives, his weakness to temptation, his financial ill-discipline, his inability to walk away from boxing and therefore the limelight, his dubious relationship with the Nation of Islam, and his health complications.
To gain a complete understanding into the life, times and mind of the great Muhammad Ali, Ali: A Life is riveting reading.