Chicago Author Jonathan Eig on the Enduring Legacy of Muhammad Ali
As Told To Murat Oztaskin| October 17, 2017 |
As he delivers the first complete biography of Muhammad Ali, Chicago author Jonathan Eig reflects on the man behind the persona that still captivates the sporting world.
Ali mingling with young fans on 79th Street in Chicago
“If I had to pick one fight to have seen in person, it would be the Fight of the Century, the first Ali versus Frazier fight in 1971. It was a major cultural event and in many ways the most important fight of Ali’s life. He was just coming back from his ‘exile’ as one of the most hated men in America. He’d been out of boxing for three and a half years—his prime was lost to his conviction for draft-dodging and his suspension. And he lost that fight, so suddenly people’s opinions of him began to change. But he handled losses very well. He never got down on himself. He carried on as if he was still the champion. It was almost as if the title didn’t matter because he decided for himself that he was the greatest.
“Ali loved boxing because he could be alone on stage. He didn’t have to share the attention with anybody. He also realized that once he had that attention, he could use it in ways that had nothing to do with sports or money. He could use it to fight back against racism and the Vietnam War, or to speak up for his view of religion. James Baldwin talked about [how] black people needed a lever, a way to be heard, a way to lift themselves up out of the conditions imposed on them. For Ali, boxing gave him a chance to rise above what society assumed he could do and to decide for himself. For all his interest in publicity, he was never really putting on a show. He was amazingly and consistently honest about who he was, and what he said was what was in his heart. In a strange way, considering his ego, he was really humble. He never tried to put on airs, and never tried to be something he wasn’t.” Jonathan Eig’s “Ali: A Life” ($30, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)