When Sir Bob Jones met Muhammad Ali

by Bob Jones / 23 October, 2017
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Training for the “Thrilla in Manila”, 1975. Photo/Getty Images

A new biography finds fault with the legendary fighter, but praise wins by a mile. 

Almost 100 books have been published about Muhammad Ali. Surely the world doesn’t need another. This one makes the case for revisiting the subject, for one very good reason: it covers, only lightly and almost as a scene-setter, Ali’s extraordinary accomplishments in the ring. Instead, it does something long overdue: it tells the truth and exposes the hyperbole and outright nonsense repeatedly dished up about Ali, the man.

Instead of providing an index, Jonathan Eig adopts that show-off practice of listing his sources, in a ludicrous 60 pages of small-type references. I note I’m included. It’s a pity he didn’t actually contact me, as I could have given him some rich incidents to back up the hundreds he has included.

For a period, I was in the middle of Ali’s crazy world, with its cast of truly astonishing characters. I was often in his dressing room, including immediately after his famous 1975 fight, the “Thrilla in Manila”. It was a sombre occasion as Ali, covered only by a towel, lay whispering that he was dying. He wasn’t, but to a large degree, it was the after-effects of that bout that led to his physical deterioration and premature death.

I was once even in bed with him. “Get in,” he commanded, lifting the covers when his manager, Herbert Muhammad, son of the Nation of Islam founder Elijah, took me to his room. I have a photo of us lying there, Ali looking childishly petulant, as he frequently was, because Herbert had backed me in an argument about whether Ali had been to New Zealand (he had, in February 1979).

Overall, Eig’s biography is a wonderful read, not as a boxing book, but as a fascinating, multi-source, anecdotal account of the man who proclaimed himself the most famous in the world and who, for a while, probably was. And it exposes the gap between what Ali said and what he did on so many fronts.

Typical is the account of a speech Ali gave in Peshawar when touring Pakistan in the late 1980s. (A photograph identifies Osama bin Laden in the audience, which, Eig claims, helped in tracing him after 9/11.) As a plainly sincere Muslim, Ali constantly talked up a storm about women’s purity, but he was a sex-crazed, obsessive womaniser.

I certainly don’t condemn Ali’s indulgences, which I consider the rewards of fame. All power to him. Rather it is the hypocrisy of his constant platitudinising about the desirability of women’s purity.

Preparing to fight Sonny Liston in the 1960s. Photo/Getty

Eig is honest about that inconsistency, as he is in describing Ali’s appalling financial neglect of devoted family members, many of whom are today dependent on welfare. That said, in the balance of anecdotal praise and condemnation, overall and doubtless justifiably, praise wins by a country mile.

When Ali died in June last year, the New Zealand Herald published an account by local boxing identity Lance Revill of his experience when Ali was out here in 1979. At the time, Revill was our professional light-heavyweight champion.

Ali put on a public sparring exhibition with talented former British opponent Joe Bugner, which pulled a large crowd in Auckland. Revill was also invited to go a few rounds with Ali, which he did. In a later conversation, he described Ali, sulking and ill-mannered in the dressing room, coming alive only in public. I witnessed that behaviour repeatedly.

The Ali legend is full of myths, such as the claim that he hurled his Rome Olympics gold medal in the Ohio River as a protest against racism. In fact, he’d lost it, which is hard for us ordinary mortals to believe, but possessions never interested him.

What drove him was a relentless need for attention. Whether he had an audience of one or thousands did not matter: Ali instantly transformed into a charming, albeit often childish, fun-loving, play-acting entertainer. But once out of the limelight, he became his private moody self.

His appetite for attention knew no bounds. During his 1979 visit, I interviewed him one wet Sunday with Peter Montgomery at the old Shortland St television studios. TV One had negotiated a 10-minute spot. “Who will give me the wind-up call?” I asked. “Oh, see if you can keep him going a bit,” was the reply.

I pointed out that Ali would be happy to talk about himself until midnight. I don’t think they believed me, and so on we went, as scheduled programmes were cancelled, chalking up an hour and a half. It was the longest live TV interview Ali ever did. Afterwards, Ali went outside to clown and tease the hundreds of people waiting in the rain. He was doing what he most loved.

It’s hard to imagine even the most diehard boxing critics not enjoying Eig’s revealing, anecdote-rich book. Many of its stories show Ali’s genuine and somewhat childlike love for his fellow man; there were no exceptions. Indeed, this open trust of everyone lay at the heart of the loss of his wealth, and, more importantly, why he kept fighting when his abilities were long gone, which brought damaging physical consequences.

Ali has been deified by the world. His boxing accomplishments, particularly in the 1960s, justify such glorification. Eig does not seek to expose Ali’s feet of clay; rather he shows the full picture, which will gratify atheists’ natural scepticism about deities.

ALI: A LIFE by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster, $49.99)

This article was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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