Magazine article The Christian Century

Ali: A Life

Magazine article The Christian Century

Ali: A Life

Article excerpt

Ali: A Life

By Jonathan Eig

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 640 pp., $30.00

Muhammad Ali was hardly ever quiet or still. As a young man, he was handsome, brash, and charismatic. His loud southern voice sang out in rhymes, brags, and opinions, as if the world were his carnival show. A brilliant entertainer and athlete, Ali reached a level of media attention and cultural fame surpassed in his time only by Elvis and the Beatles.

Even after his boxing career was over--his brain addled by years of blows to the head, his hands trembling with Parkinson's disease--Ali's personality radiated a warmth that still attracted crowds. President Jimmy Carter named Ali a special emissary to Africa. George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling the boxer "a fierce fighter and a man of peace."

As a high school student in Louisville, clowning for his classmates and drawing attention to himself with boxing skills and abrasive humor, the young man, known then as Cassius Clay, desired the kind of happiness he felt when he was the center of attention and the kind of wealth he thought only some white people had. But he was a mediocre student, and his high school diploma was a "certificate of attendance" presented for academic efforts that placed him near the bottom of his graduating class.

Years later, rising toward the fame and fortune he wanted, he explained with characteristic innocence that as a young adult he believed that boxing would be the fastest way for him to achieve his goals. The provocative and constructive influence Ali had on debates about race relations, the morality of military service, and interfaith investigations resulted largely from his gift for showmanship and impulsive honesty.

In the 1960s Ali emerged from the shady underworld of prizefighting as a made-for-television athlete. A brazen self-promoter, he baited and bullied one opponent after another, drawing onlookers' attention and pumping up interest in his next fight. Throughout his life he needed people to see him and watch him--even if they came to boo him, see him bleed, or be beaten unconscious.

Ali became convinced that the religion of Jesus had been pressed on black slaves by white slave owners, and he vowed allegiance to Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, with its teachings of black power and black nationalism.

His rejection of Christianity was also a stamp of the young Ali's independence and defiance. "I was baptized when I was twelve, but I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I'm not a Christian anymore. I don't have to be what you want me to be. …

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