By Alan Hubbard
More books have been written about Muhammad Ali than any other sports figure in history. I have lost count of the tomes of his life and times that occupy my bookshelves. Indeed, they could fill a small library of their own.
Some are hastily cobbled together pot boilers, others great literary works worthy of a Pulitzer prize. But none have been quite as starkly revealing as the first to be published since his death 15 months ago.
Fittingly ‘Ali-A Life’ by esteemed American author Jonathan Eig coincides with the anniversary of the greatest fight of his career, and arguably the most bizarre sporting event of all time, The Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman 43 years ago.
Not that this is the focal point. Indeed, none of Ali memorable ring combats are.
Rather it is a compellingly incisive portrait of sport’s most celebrated figure and to say it is warts and all is an understatement.
This is indeed the darker side of Ali, one of which the world may have been aware of but conveniently overlooked.
Some of its 500 pages will make disquieting reading but such is the indelible allure of Ali that I doubt if it will diminish the lingering affection in which his memory is held. Nor should it.
It is far from a hagiography, the highlight of which a chapter devoted to his phenomenal sexual appetite.
While it was no secret to those around him that Ali was addicted to sex,ithas to be emphasised that he was no sexual predator as we have come to know the term today.
He never pestered or made improper advances. He had no need to tomaul or molest, or make lewd, crude overtures. We are certainly not talking harassment or Harvey Weinstein here.
The ‘foxes’ as he liked to call them simply fell at his feet – or queued to knock on his bedroom door.
He was the supreme swordsman, a sporting superstud who made George Best and Tiger Woods seem like Trappist Monks; a womaniser and unmitigated philanderer who wedded four and bedded hundreds more.
Which begs the question I have been asked many times – whether he was a big man in every sense, nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean?
Well, as someone who has been in his dressing room along with other writers, and seen him emerge naked from the shower I can testify that Ali’s manhood was no big deal; a very average appendage. No Linfordlunchbox here.
Mind you, it may have been a very cold shower…
Obviously size wasn’t everything. Simply his libido.
Neither, apparently was Ali as great an artist in bed as he was in the boxing ring. His second wife Belinda reveals in the book that it was very much a case of slam, bam, thank you m’am…
Not that his virility was in question. He fathered nine children by two of his four wives and several more out of wedlock, making provision for them all.
As Eig writes:”Black women, white women, young women, old women, Hollywood actresses, chambermaids. Ali did not discriminate. Everyone close to the fighter knew his proclivities. His friends laughed about it.”
Yet no woman has ever complained that Ali mistreated her sexually or made unwelcome advances. He never felt the need to chat up women. Though there were plenty who ‘pimped’ for him.
Neither did he subscribe to the view, a do most fighters, that prolonged pre-fight abstinence from sex makes you stronger.
I recall that after the weigh-in at the Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier we were chatting with Angelo Dundee when someone came up to whisper in his ear. The trainer shot off up to a gantry where, we learned later, he had discovered Ali ‘in flagrante’ with a young lady from a news magazine.
Well that’s one way of getting an exclusive interview I suppose.
It was in Manila that Ali’s marriage to karate black belt Belinda finally broke up when, hearing he was parading model Veronica Porsche, later to be wife number three, as his girl friend she flew into in a rage, trashed their hotel suite and left Ali with scratch marks on his face.
Belinda told Eig that Ali had ‘a dark and evil side.’
Well, we knew he was no paragon and did not pretend to be.
Eig paints a complex portrait of Ali, illustrating his contradictions, both as a person and as a public figure.
His religion railed against white people as “devils,” yet he accepted the financial backing of the paternalistic white millionaires in the Louisville Sponsoring Group and he never denigrated a white opponent. He also had many white friends.
He won adoration, and riches and fame, but by the 1965 rematch with Sonny Liston, Eig surmises that Ali was the most hated man in America.
Eig also paints Ali’s bouts with vivid detail. Describing a 1966 triumph over Ernie Terrell, he writes: “Ali had boxed beautifully, changing speed and direction like a kite, cracking jabs, digging hooks to the ribs, sliding away with a shuffle to survey the damage he’d done, and then cracking more jabs, moving in and out with no steady rhythm, no pattern. He was a revolutionary… with an innate style and virtuosity no one would ever reproduce. He turned violence into craft like no heavyweight before or since.”
Long before today’s rebellious athletes took a knee on the field or stayed in the locker room during the singing of the American national anthem, Muhammad Ali straddled the crossroads of sports and racial politics, capturing the world’s attention
Ali’s life was more complex than most other sports figures, and Eig’s brilliant book, published by Smon and Shuster at £25, is a brutally honest biography about a true champ, who, despite his many flaws, fought for equality and justice, and lit a torch that will never go out.
And he truly was a ladies’ man in every sense.
Though in the current climate today’s ‘sisters’ may demur.
ANTHONY JOSHUA NOW has a real fight on his hands – not in the ring but for the title of Sports Personality of the Year.
He seemed a cert until last weekend. Not that his laboured victory over stubborn stand-in Carlos Takam did his chances much harm but Lewis Hamilton’s celebrated acquisition of the Formula 1 world motor racing championships seems to have thrust him into pole position for the annual BBC award.
Petrolheads will be voting en masse for Hamilton. Will fights fans get behind Big Josh? We shall see. Boxing hasn’t had a SPOTY champ since Joe Calzaghe a decade ago.
Meantime Frank Warren has gone out on a limb and predicted that sensational young heavyweight Daniel Dubois
is the one who will terminate Joshua’s reign – perhaps even by the end of next year.
You know what? I agree.
True, we’ve yet to see anyone clump man mountain Dubois on the whiskers but the fiercely aggressive way he fights from the first bell suggests not even Josh will get the chance.
I also agree with my mate Colin Hart that Dubois the biggest punching British heavyweight of all time.
So you can bet Joshua, having had a free taste of Dubois leathery power, will fend him off as long as possible.
It is now an undisputed fact that he was knocked cold in the gym by 20-year-old Dubois before he became world champ. Though the persistent rumour that he had to have medical treatment afterwards remains unconfirmed as all lips are sealed.
MUCH AS I like Big Josh I can’t go along with the latest Skyperbole that decrees he is the already the best British heavyweight of all time. Indeed, I can think of four others who I believe would have beaten him at this stage of his career: Lennox Lewis, Joe Bugner, Frank Bruno and Tyson Fury. Anyone disagree?
GOOD TO SEE James DeGale and Frank Warren sharing a press conference top table again this week prior to the talent-packed CopperBox show on December 9.
I have known and liked ‘Chunky’ since his amateur cays. He was the first Olympic gold medallist Frank signed. They made a good team and now back as a world super-middleweight champion after his globetrotting, DeGale is poised, along with newly recruited fellow world kingpin Lee Selby, Anthony Yarde, Daniel Dubois, Carl Frampton, Josh Warrington and a whole other fistful of great young prospects to set the world alight in what is potentially one of boxing’s best-ever New Years.