Oral history tells of Muhammad Ali's triumphs and tragedies

July 28, 1991|By S. M. Khalid


Thomas Hauser.

Simon & Schuster.

544 pages. $24.95. During his 30 years in the public eye as perhaps the world's most famous man, Muhammad Ali has elicited the whole range of emotions of millions of people, from love to hate.

He was perhaps, as he had claimed, "the Greatest" -- arguably the best heavyweight and, perhaps, the greatest boxer there ever was. Not only blessed with unusually fast hands and feet, Mr. Ali also possessed remarkable recuperative powers, an iron chin and the strongest will to win.

Still, nearly 10 years since his last fight, Mr. Ali remains as much as an enigma as he did when he first achieved international prominence as the young, irrepressible loudmouth who won the world's heavyweight championship in 1964 as Cassius Clay.

Of the dozen or books written so far on Mr. Ali, Thomas Hauser's "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times" is easily the best and the most definitive. Like its subject matter, the book had to be unusual in that its approach is an oral history instead of a standard text.

It is a hefty but eminently readable tome. The reader gets to see several sides of Mr. Ali's multifaceted personality and his development from callow youth to an extraordinary historical figure. The reminiscences and anecdotes are numerous and rich, as the various characters in his life, as well as the champion, relive all the excitement, drama, exhilaration, disappointment and sadness of his professional career and personal life.

There are the Good (Ali's friend, Howard Bingham), the Bad (promoter Don King) and the Ugly (Ali's unruly entourage).

Promoter Don King comes across as the scheming archvillain, not only for his dealing in promoting several of Mr. Ali's fights, but for allegedly shortchanging the champ $50,000 in cash -- instead of paying him $1 million that he owed Mr. Ali after he was defeated by King's fighter, Larry Holmes.

Mr. Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, comes across as inept, especially his failure to get top dollar for the richest heavyweight champion of all. For example, his actions cost Mr. Ali at least $7 million in the first Joe Frazier bout by taking a guarantee instead of a percentage of the gross.

The Nation of Islam is seen in a shameful light as well. Especially damaging is the decision of its top leadership to play down its links with Cassius Clay before he took the championship from Sonny Liston because they were convinced -- like most of the betting public -- that he would lose.

There are numerous heroes and villains in this book -- Mr. Ali plays both roles at various times. But there are several heroines who stand out, especially three of his four wives.

His first wife, Sonji Clay, comes across as a caring, strong-willed and thinking spouse, concerned about Mr. Ali's personal welfare. In her own words, she is a far cry from the celluloid sexpot depicted in the movie version of his biography, "The Greatest."

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, the "Fight Doctor" -- who remains estranged from Mr. Ali to this day because he wanted the boxer to retire because of medical concerns over the punishment sustained near the end of his career -- also emerges in a favorable light.

There are notable omissions -- Mr. Ali's late assistant trainer, Drew "Bundini" Brown, Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King and Muslim leader Warith D. Muhammad.

Substantial portions of some periods are missed, such as Mr. Ali's maturation and personal development during his 3 1/2 -year exile from boxing, when his title was lifted and he fought to remain outside jail while appealing a conviction for refusing to be drafted into the Army. What the reader gets is the Muslims' stilted, self-serving account of his exile, but precious little of what Mr. Ali went through.

Despite these drawbacks, Mr. Hauser's book more than compensates in its rich retelling of some of Mr. Ali's greatest moments, particularly the first Ali-Frazier fight, his defeat of George Foreman in Zaire and the "Thrilla in Manila" against Mr. Frazier.

Mr. Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee; assistant trainer, Wali Muhammad; and Mr. Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, recall the gut-wrenching spectacle of Manila in vivid detail -- including Mr. Ali's painful request to have his gloves cut off and quit before Frazier gave up after the 14th round.

"What it came down to in Manila wasn't the heavyweight championship of the world," said sportswriter Jerry Izenberg. "Ali and Frazier were fighting for something more important than that. They were fighting for the championship of each other, and it was an epic battle."

Mr. Izenberg and peers Mark Kram, Mike Katz and Ed Schuyler provide insightful input to the telling of these chapters, giving the readers a glimpse of what it was like to cover events that transcended the sport of boxing.

However, it is not the moments of triumph in the ring that are the most notable, but the last few chapters of the book recalling Mr. Ali's personal and professional decline in compelling detail.

The chapters on "Money" and "The Beating" are perhaps the saddest, detailing failed attempts to manage Mr. Ali's wealth, including interviews with his former investment team, and his pathetic comeback defeat by Larry Holmes. These chapters are important in showing how easily and thoroughly Mr. Ali was manipulated by others, but they also show his humanity.

A partial documentation of Mr. Ali's current medical condition provides some timely information into the physical challenges the former champion is now facing.

Ms. Khalid is a reporter for The Sun.

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