In today’s Times, my review [£] of a fascinating account of the moment when sport and politics collided head-on:
Thanks to Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith’s enthralling narrative we now have a better understanding of how a complex relationship was born, and how it fell apart. In the process the authors — both academics in the US — give us a more rounded portrait of Ali. In the years since he began to succumb to Parkinson’s, “The Louisville Lip”, now aged 74, has retreated into a world of smiles and silences. Davis Miller’s fascinating memoir, The Tao of Muhammad Ali (1996), cemented his image as a serene philosopher-cum-magician whose life revolves around traditional Muslim beliefs far removed from the Nation of Islam’s vision of “white devils” being wiped out by a fleet of avenging spaceships.
Roberts and Smith remind us, however, of what a volcanic, contradictory personality Ali was at the beginning of his career. Sometimes boastful, sometimes self-deprecating, he could be pious or crude, a clown or a visionary. One mask followed another. Most boxing journalists, used to dealing with fighters who were strictly one-dimensional, were bemused. But as the late light-heavyweight champion José Torres observes in the book, feints, dummies and play-acting are an integral part of a boxer’s armoury: “The first thing you learn in the gym is that you have to have a double personality if you are to become a good fighter.”