A devout man of God that was notoriously unfaithful to his wives; a sharp, articulate poet who could barely read and write; a man who preached that white men were devils whose public friendship with whites broke down so many barriers; a political figure who couldn’t place Vietnam on a map; a man who admits to now reading his Bible more than the Qur’an; as funny as any stand-up comic who was then portrayed as strangely downcast in the film Ali; a loudmouth in his youth, a near mute now; The Greatest, The Champion, but with an often described child-like naivety.
There’s a cliche that we don’t find good books, good books find us. I always think of this when I stumble across a book that blows my mind and gives me opinions I can pass off as my own, but wasn’t something I sought out in the first place.
The latest addition to this category is called Sound & Fury – a dual biography of Muhammad Ali and his friend, the legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell. I didn’t know this book existed, but fell upon it at Borders a few days ago. I read it in three days and it’s hands down the best book I’ve ever read about Muhammad Ali and more than that, it’s up there with the most important books I’ve ever read.
Just as Cosell has been oversimplified into caricature, the book also explains how Ali has been oversimplified into myth. Boxing aficionados will always debate whether he was the greatest in the ring and personally, if he wasn’t the greatest ever he certainly came pretty close. But what seems almost universal is the idea of Ali as some kind of living saint – a beacon of peace in a troubled world. “Sound & Fury” goes beyond the myth and makes Ali a whole lot more real and even more captivating.
The book is written by a friend of both Ali’s and the late Cosell, Dave Kindred. He is a heralded journalist, a white man, who befriended Ali at the height of his “all white men are blue-eyed devils” rhetoric. We are reminded of Ali’s racism not just towards whites (which while disturbing is at least is based on injustices to blacks), but also towards blacks. Calling chief foe Joe Frazier a “gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom” is as demeaning a remark as any black man could make to another.
But as you read the book, you realise these are just a couple of the endless paradoxs that comprise Ali. He could preach the hate of Elijah Muhammad on the one hand, but on the other show he didn’t have a racist bone in his body. He was so astonishingly charismatic, inspiring and downright hilarious that we would forgive him comments suggesting that the KKK had the right idea – that segregation was correct.
Ali’s intriguing friendship with Cosell is the backdrop of the book. Ali was beautiful, young, black, barely literate and a champion sportsman; Cosell was craggy, old, white, a former lawyer and had never boxed, never played football. When Ali was blacklisted and not allowed to fight for three years due to his refusal to be drafted to Vietnam, it was Cosell who stood up for him more than anyone.
Sound & Fury is a story of an unlikely friendship and the way Kindred humanises Ali is stunning. All the contradictions make up the intrigue and appeal of Ali. He was flawed, but so is everyone. Much of the controversy he spouted were the words of an impressionable young man searching for justice in the unjust USA of the 1960s. The true story of the ultimately great, warm and generous man is so much more interesting than the sanitised versions we normally get. What is never misunderstood about him is that he has always been an inspiration and that remains as strong as it ever was.