There are more books about Muhammad Ali than Abe Lincoln: 300 titles in the children’s section alone. You can also purchase The Muhammad Ali Reader, the Tao of Muhammad Ali, or the $10,000 G.O.A.T. – a massive coffee table book about all things Ali that is slightly larger than a typical coffee table. His is a history that has been repeatedly regurgitated for popular consumption. Despite – or maybe because of – this crisis of Ali overproduction, I felt compelled to write The Muhammad Ali Handbook.
An informal Ali School of Falsification has been running full throttle since 1996. That was the year Ali, his hands trembling, lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta. The connection between Ali and the global audience crackled and his Olympic moment sparked a renaissance of interest.
The way this interest has been sated, however, has been with books and retrospectives swamped with either sugary spin or slander. The dominant discourse has come from the “sell Ali” crowd. They are part of the Champ’s inner circle and last year made a deal with CKX inc. to sell his image for $50 million. They are the same company that turned Elvis Presley into a velvet painting. CKX inc. marked Ali’s 65th birthday in January with the release of a new line of snack foods with names like “Rumble,” “Shuffle” and “Jabs” and flavors such as “Fruit Fight,” “Thrill-A-Dill-A” and “Slammin’ Salsa.”
This new sanitized Ali can shill for Microsoft or receive honors at the White House. He is someone George W. Bush could cuddle next to for the cameras and comfortably call “a man of peace.”
The second strain comes from the “smear Ali” crowd. There is a new cottage industry of books that attempt to prove in the words of one particular piece of trash that “Ali was an unapologetic sexist and unabashed racist” who “was bad for America.” This group takes Ali’s opposition to the war in Vietnam and his Muslim religion, and crushes him for having the temerity to speak his mind. They come off as a thinly veiled exercise in attacking those today that would dare resist.
These two wings of the Ali School of Falsification share a common destination: the obliteration his wildly attractive and all-to-edgy political impact. Sport – and all popular culture – is the business of perception. Therefore to understand Ali, we must not only know the man, but also how he was perceived. Since the 1960s audience consuming the young Ali were part of some of the most important social upheavals in the 20th century, it makes taking this holistic view all the more important.
My book takes the starting point that Ali was someone who was both shaped by and a shaper of his times: the segregation of the 1950s; the revolts of the 1960s; the sybaritic 1970s; the despair of the 80s and the commercial culture of the 1990s. His chameleon like ability to be a man of all seasons, makes him unique in the history of sports. Many star athletes live in isolation, their lives defined by bodyguards and gated communities: the general public a nation of enemies. For Ali, particularly the young Ali, his ear was to the street. Having a bodyguard was not his way. As he said,
“I’m an easy target. I’m everywhere; everybody knows me. I walk the streets daily, and nobody’s guarding me. I have no guns, no police. So if someone’s gonna get me, tell them to come on and get it over with – if they can get past God, because God is controlling the bullet.”
This may be another world from today’s athletes, but Ali could not be more relevant and reclaiming his legacy could not be more pressing. We live in an era where sports has become an industry that towers titanically over the grandest dreams of its founders. It is bigger than US steel, and counts profits in the hundreds of billions. The stars of the SportsWorld are given a platform that dwarves both celebrities and elected leaders. But that platform comes at a price: it comes branded with corporate logos and the expectation that those given the stage will toe the line. Muhammad Ali represents a different path: the person that would not be who they wanted him to be. And we are richer not only for the experience but the example.
To tell this story, I wanted the book to be a part of the MQ Publications handbook series. They intersperse almost every other page with rare photos, quotes and interviews. Comparing most biographies to the MQ series is like comparing a map to a globe: it’s the same story but told in a radically different way. They deserve the credit for placing my text in a package that is simply breathtaking.
I feel like we have created a book that makes a small contribution toward historical preservation. The goal is simple: to make sure those who would sell Ali by the pound or smear his reputation as a freedom fighter, don’t destroy a name that deserves to echo unvarnished through the struggles of the future.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” , forthcoming from Haymarket. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com