Muhammad Ali. Photo: Reuters
Muhammad Ali. Photo: Reuters

Seven books on Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was much more than boxing. If you are looking to read up about the self-professed The Greatest, these seven books are recommended

No sportsperson has perhaps inspired as much prose as Muhammad Ali. And interestingly, a lot of it came from writers who generally would give sport a miss. This was because Ali was so much more than boxing—the man wrote poetry, spoke with Malcolm X, took part in anti-war demonstrations, refused to join the US Army in Vietnam, converted to Islam, went to Iraq to come away with hostages in the early 1990s...he just gave writers so much more than fisticuffs in a roped ring. So it is hardly surprising that bookstores in the world are stacked with titles about the former world heavyweight champion. And if you are looking to read up about the self-professed The Greatest, these seven titles are recommended:

The Life and Times of Muhammad Ali by Thomas Hauser

One book on Muhammad Ali that covers pretty much everything? Hauser’s slightly weighty tome has got to be it. Hauser played Boswell to Ali’s Johnson in this title, talking to not just Ali but almost everyone he was associated with - parents, wives, trainers, journalists and of course, his rivals in the ring. The result is a book of astonishing detail with a wealth of conversation. And although an ‘official’ biography, it is amazingly objective—Hauser does not try to airbrush Ali’s failings but states them up front.

Muhammad Ali by Don Atyeo and Felix Denis

For those who want a more ‘visual’ narration of Muhammad Ali’s career, this is the book. Atyeo and Dennis cover each of his bouts, blending some very good text with brilliant photography. The attention paid to his personal life is not quite as detailed but boxing lovers will just love the manner in which the duo capture every fight--the entire chapter devoted to the fight against Foreman is an absolute classic. Sports writing at its best, we think.

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The King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick

If you are looking for a classic biography, then this is not it. For Remnick (the man who gave us the brilliant Lenin’s Tomb) mainly focuses on Ali’s life from his Olympic victory to his second fight with Sonny Liston in this book. It might seem a relatively small period--slightly more than half a decade—but it was a time which witnessed Ali win the Olympics, become a contender, win the heavyweight title against all odds, and then surprise everyone by converting to Islam. This is the story of the man Ali became, and is compulsively readable not just for the boxing but for the relationships and friendships that Ali got in and out of in this turbulent period, not just for the sport, but for the world. The book could also be titled How Cassius Clay Became Muhammad Ali. Superb writing.

The Fight by Norman Mailer

There are many who consider this to be the single greatest book ever written on any sport. And with good reason—it is written by the redoubtable Norman Mailer at the peak of his powers and covers perhaps the most important fight in Ali’s career, the bout against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. No one gave Ali a chance against Foreman, who was supposed to be virtually unbeatable, not to mention indestructible. Ali, of course, stunned the world with a whole new strategy (one he christened Rope a Dope), winning back the heavyweight title. This is the story of the fight, told by one of the greatest authors of our time. Mailer had complete access to Ali, Foreman, their trainers and followers, and he roamed Zaire, picking up vibes of the bout. The result is part sports book, part fight report, part travelogue and part biography.

Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring by George Plimptom

There will be those who will be wondering what this book is doing in this list - it is not about Ali, and is actually about legendary writer George Plimpton’s experiences of boxing, including an actual bout with boxing great Archie Moore. Well, the reason is that while this is not a book devoted to Ali, the Greatest flits in and out of its pages, writing poems with a literary figure, playing pranks and finally, pulling of a mighty upset at the very end. Rarely has so much been revealed about a person in so few pages. Do grab a copy of Mailer’s The Fight (also in this list) to read side by side, as Mailer and Plimpton were companions during the Foreman fight Zaire and it is fun to read their perceptions of the fight - Mailer actually screamed “it’s a fix" early in the fight!

Ali vs Superman by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams

Yes, this was a comic strip. And no, it was not a great comic strip by any standards, let alone modern ‘graphic novel’ ones but if one book captures the sheer stature of Ali, it is this one. Not too many sports figures have made it into a super hero comic strip. Ali did. Against the last son of Krypton, no less. And oh yes, he more than held his own. It remains one of the most famous Superman comics of all time.

The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali

It was a book that promised a lot but in the end delivered relatively little. Yes, Muhammad Ali did write his autobiography (shortly after his third, brutal fight with Joe Frazier) but by most accounts, it was so heavily tweaked by his religious mentors that the final product was a little disappointing by Ali standards, notwithstanding the involvement of Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison. It nevertheless is essential reading for anyone who wants to get into the ‘head’ of Muhammad Al, as it is the closest thing we have to his story in his own words - he talks about women, clothes, marriage, losing his virginity, and of course, boxing. Read it just for the ten page conversation he has while driving in a car with the man who would become his bete noir, Joe Frazier!