Overall, this strikes me as a somewhat lazy book. Rather than offer any original writing, the editors simply cobble together previously published writings by Alex Haley (actually a Playboy interview of the young Ali by Haley), Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and Peter Richmond, along with a very short introduction by James Earl Jones. The book jacket also boasts of “contributions from” the likes of Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, George Plimpton, Jim Brown, and numerous others, but this turns out to refer simply to brief quotations that pepper the book, mostly as photo captions.
The quality of the text by the four featured writers is fine. Certainly you can’t go wrong with Mailer. His book The Fight, from which the chapter in this book is excerpted, was one of the first serious works about boxing and Muhammad Ali that I read back in the ’70s, and the first thing I ever read by Mailer. I was a big fan of Ali going in, and a fan of Mailer as well coming out.
One can always quibble with editing decisions in a book like this, but being familiar with Mailer’s The Fight, I found some of the choices made here rather peculiar. For example, in Mailer’s very lengthy account of the Ali-Foreman fight itself, he presents the fifth round as the most dramatic, action-filled, significant round of the entire fight. In this excerpt, the editors choose to include some of Mailer’s set-up for that round (e.g., “[Foreman] came out in the fifth with the conviction that if force had not prevailed against Ali up to now, more force was the answer, considerably more force than Ali had ever seen”), but then simply replace that entire climactic round with ellipsis.
I don’t believe I had previously read the other three selections, or at most I had read excerpts from them. But none of them are newly rediscovered gems that will come as revelations to serious Ali fans. They are not weak or uninteresting, but they are recycled material with which many readers will already be familiar.
Similarly, there are many fine photos in the book, but little that has not appeared in one or more similar Ali books in the past. (In terms of both text and photos, I strongly prefer Wilfrid Sheed’s superficially similar picture book Muhammad Ali to this one.) One exception is that this book includes many fight programs, posters, and tickets that I had not previously come across.
The book is marred by some factual errors committed by the editors in their photo captions. There are many things that a fact checker even minimally familiar with Ali’s career should have caught, so one must unfortunately infer considerable sloppiness or laziness on the part of those who put this book together.
For example, contrary to what this book tells you, Ali did not defeat Joe Frazier by fifteen round decision in their third fight. Ali was awarded a technical knockout when Frazier’s handlers conceded between the fourteenth and fifteenth rounds. Ali’s 1972 fight against George Chuvalo was not a fifteen round decision, but a twelve round decision. (He had defeated Chuvalo by fifteen round decision in an earlier fight in 1966; that might be what confused the editors.) The book states flatly that Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw in the second round of their March 1973 fight. Maybe, but different parties have claimed anything from the first to the twelfth round, so the matter is not without uncertainty. The photo identified as being from Ali’s 1971 fight against Jurgen Blin is in fact a photo from the 1974 fight against Foreman.
Though flawed, this book still has worthwhile elements. With such a compelling central character, you would expect nothing less. It’s not the best Ali book out there by a long shot, but insofar as it recruits a few more young newcomers into the legions of Ali fans, and gives the rest of us an excuse to reminisce about an extraordinary man and his extraordinary life, it cannot be all bad.