MUCH has been written about Muhammad Ali, the greatest figure in 20th century sport and possibly cultural life. Several books about him are indeed sportswriting classics (The Fight by Norman Mailer and King of the World by David Remnick for instance to name just two). But for such well documented life, it can sometimes seem impossible to write anything new about the great man. But two recently published books prove, in different ways, that it can be done.
Becoming Ali, by Kwame Alexander and James Patterson, is fiction, based on fact, that combines verse and prose. Aimed at younger readers it imagines the childhood of Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Kentucky.
“The idea was we want young readers to be able to grasp, to find access, to find some relatability with Muhammad Ali and you can’t do that with him as an icon, as an activist, as a heavyweight champion, he looms so large. It’s almost mythical. But if we could find a way to write about the ordinariness of him growing up, his coming of age, of his not doing so well in school, of his crushes, of there being a bully in the neighbourhood. The regular things that kids go through. If we could tell that story and show how he developed his confidence and how that served as a springboard for him to become The Greatest, then that would be a unique and original way to tell his story. That was Jim’s idea and we just took it and ran with it,” Alexander tells Boxing News. “To show who he was because everybody knows who he became.”
Their novel is based on fact. Supported by the Muhammad Ali Center the authors had unique access to oral history tapes and spoke to his widow Lonnie. Alexander discovered that, even though it wasn’t understood at the time, Ali was dyslexic, as well as getting a more complete picture of what his life was like growing up.
“I write to engage kids,” Alexander explained. “We want to write books that make kids want to read.
“I felt compelled to do it because Ali’s autobiography had played a pivotal role in my life when I read it. I read it when I was 11 years old and it really helped me understand that books are cool and this guy is cocky and arrogant and confident and still humble at the same time and still real and authentic and kind and beautiful. All the things I want to be. There’s this great quote: I’m the Greatest not because I’m better than anyone but because no one is better than me and that’s what I got from reading that book.”
This task though came with unique pressure. Lonnie Ali for instance did not like the first draft. “I had to check my ego,” Kwame said. “It was hard. I had to be respectful. [She said,] ‘We’ve got to get this right for Muhammad’s legacy and I believe in you.’ She added that little thing and that made me feel better and then I had to go back and rewrite and balance her notes with my artistic integrity. I’m not going to change the story, as it were, because you don’t like something, especially if it happened. At the same time I’m going to be respectful of this relationship and this opportunity to use my writing chops to make sure that I do it in a way that Muhammad would enjoy reading and would not have a problem with.
“What I didn’t realise was the kind of pressure that we would be under from the estate whose sole purpose is to uphold and uplift the legacy of one of the greatest human beings to ever walk this earth.”
It was a success in the end. When it was finished he points out, “She said that Muhammad would have loved the book and she loved it, so I guess it worked out.”
Incidentally no less than Marcus Rashford recently recommended Becoming Ali on his Twitter feed.
The story of Muhammad Ali and what he represents still resonates today. “The more things change the more they stay the same. It’s sad that we’re still dealing with this stuff. You think about where Ali grew up, where this book takes place, in Louisville and then you think about what happened in Louisville with Breonna Taylor so the same stuff is still happening. The idea is that maybe this book can provide some inspiration, some encouragement to a black kid to see themselves and to see what’s possible for them in the midst of all this racial injustice and maybe a white kid can see it and say wow, I need to start thinking differently, I need to begin to embrace the full humanity of this world,” Alexander said. “Books are mirrors, where you see yourself and books are windows where you see other people and the idea is that your imagination begins to grow. You become a more fuller human being, more connected to each other, more empathetic. A better human being. Isn’t that what he was fighting for all those years?”
Stuart Cosgrove explores such themes in his excellent new history, Cassius X, set when Ali was converting to Islam, preparing to beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title and becoming increasingly engaged politically.
“For a period of time in 1963, while the world knew him as Cassius Marcellus Clay, the Louisville Lip, he was actually know to himself and to those close to him at the mosque in Miami where he was converting as Cassius X,” Cosgrove explained. “I think there are a number of parallels throughout the Soul trilogy, [Cosgroves’] three books on soul music and social change in the late sixties. Every one of the books has untimely deaths, where usually a kind of racist police force has killed a young kid, and it festers within the community and is at the core of people’s anger and almost becomes a site of their resistance. I kind of felt that quite a lot of that was going on.
“He [Ali] did a big, big service to his generation there because he challenged an orthodoxy that said young African-American men shouldn’t speak out and turned round and said: I’m the Greatest, I’ll speak whenever I want… That’s quite a big radical step when he was 20, 21 years old, so on him fair play.”
“Maybe there’s a kind of comparison, albeit in different ways, if you look at what Marcus Rashford is doing now as a young athlete. He’s willing to stand up and take up his own views on what he thinks is politically appropriate. He’s willing to put his own reputation on the line and he’s willing to stand up to the government of the day. That’s not something a lot of people can do in life. Most people like to just simply live below the radar, not put themselves up for complaint and criticism. I’m not saying the two are comparable because Marcus Rashford lives in a very different era,” Cosgrove adds. “At the time Cassius X was pretty much alone. There were a lot of very good black boxers … but in some respects he was the one that stood up and refused to accept the idea that he should button his lip. I respect him for that. That’s one of the things I most respect him for.”
Cosgrove is an expert on the emergence of soul music in America and explores soul’s influence on the young Ali. Soul singer Dee Dee Sharp was his girlfriend at the time and his friendship with Sam Cook was also instructive for Muhammad Ali. “He [Cook] was very good at insisting on the rights to his music,” Cosgrove said. “He mentored Cassius to become very business like about his brand.
“[Ali] was an early developer of how you could build an image, a persona, a commercial brand we might call it now and he was a very early adopter of that and that’s one of the reasons I write a good deal about Sam Cook in the book because Sam Cook at this time owned his own record label.
“[Ali] was great at manipulating that kind of relationship with editors and photographers. The book’s also about his capacity to exploit the media and make it work for him. He loved the R&B DJs, who of course perfected the rhyming couplets and the poetry in what became the early days of rap music, that’s what he immersed himself in.”
It’s an approach to the subject that looks at the life and purpose of Muhammad Ali from a new angle. “The soul music fraternity can be brutal, the boxing fraternity even more so. I took the risk of maybe alienating both of them,” Cosgrove chuckled. “Almost every single sentence that I wrote, I would go back and recheck it and double check it.
“Every word had to be right.”