Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts

By Davis Miller

Liveright | 2016

Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

By Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

Basic Books | 2016

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

In a recent Sports Illustrated article, the magazine acknowledged the name, Muhammad Ali, not only because of his stellar achievements in the ring, but also, his fearless integrity in his daily life. The boxer stood up against the might of the U.S. government, citing his Muslim faith, about serving in the military in an unpopular war.

This is why we continue to be fascinated by him long after he hung up his boxing gloves. We love heroes.

Currently, two books join the seemingly endless series of printed text on the 74-year-old boxer, who once proclaimed himself, “The Greatest.”

One book, Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, deals with the aging icon, retired and battling the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, and out of the spotlight.

Diagnosed in 1984, he has dealt with the symptoms of the degenerative condition for most of his life. The book, written by veteran sportswriter, Davis Miller, chronicles their friendship going back to 1964 when the sickly 11-year-old Miller used “The Champ” as a catalyst for self-improvement, pulling himself out of a deep funk following his mother’s sudden death.

“Ali has been the most reliably large planet in my solar system, the astronomical constant, my friend and great subject,” writes a grateful Miller, thinking back to his meaningful encounters with the boxer.

He credits his admiration of Ali because he provided the spark for his evolution from a confused youth, to a competitive athlete, and finally, a prominent writer.

Their friendship, currently nearing its third-decade mark, had its origin when Miller, in his late thirties, visited Ali’s home in Louisville, Kentucky, to pay tribute to the three-time boxing champion.

Miller finds himself warmly welcomed by Ali, his brother Rahaman, and their mother, Mrs. Odessa Clay. He wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about that day, the sparring session on the lawn, the family meal, and the visitor reading stories to the boxer. This article was selected by the late Pulitzer Prize winning David Halberstam as one of the finest American sport stories of the twentieth century.

The story, “My Dinner with Ali,” leads off the book in an expanded form.

One wonders how Davis Miller got so close to the boxing icon. Ali, known for his generous nature with his fans and friends, explains it this way in 1993: “I don’t talk much; that’s not my way no more. But you’re wise, serious. I feel it rumblin’ around you. You make me think, and talk.”

In retirement, Ali thinks about his glorious past, his natural gifts as a boxer, his historic milestones on the way to greatness. He began training at age 12, won six Kentucky Golden Glove titles and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. In an incredible upset, he won the world heavyweight championship at age 22 from hard-hitting Sonny Liston in 1964.

Later that year, he joined the Nation of Islam and became a minister. In 1967, he was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title because he refused to be drafted into the military because of his religious beliefs. He was arrested and convicted. He didn’t fight for four years until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.

Upon his return, there were several unforgettable fights that sealed his legacy: the trio of brutal Joe Frazier battles, and the legendary bout with the previous unbeaten George Foreman. However, the layoff slowed his hand speed, reflexes, and footwork. It was after the savage conflict with Frazier in 1975 that the first Parkinson’s symptoms appeared, and his performance in the ring became erratic. He lost the title with the Leon Spinks first, then regained his crown but was defeated by Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. The boxer retired with 56 wins and five losses.

What sets Miller’s book apart from the tributes written by Norman Mailer or George Plimpton or Hunter S. Thompson is the abundance of pure emotion centered on the mythic figure. There are some scenes that portray the humanity and compassion of the boxer. Ali, in a crowd of people at Miami International airport, pulls money out of his wallet to give to a woman whose purse was stolen; Ali, with his wife Lonnie and his mother, welcoming the author to breakfast.

Ali, during Desert Storm, traveled to Baghdad to talk with Saddam Hussein and brings 15 U.S. hostages home. Ali also entertained Miller’s son by doing magic tricks, which saddens the boy, who cries, saying he wishes the former boxer wasn’t sick.

However, as the book indicates, Ali and Frazier sit on the opposite end of the table with the Champ’s rival still fuming: “He can’t talk no more, but he’s always trying to make noise.” Now older and wiser, Ali regrets calling Frazier a gorilla and an Uncle Tom. He admits he was “arrogant, cruel, out of control.” He wants Frazier to forgive him for his insults, but his one-time foe never will.

Certainly, Miller’s book is bittersweet in detailing the physical decline of “The Greatest,” but it is above some of the others with the chronicle of daily life of Ali out of the ring. His friendship with the boxing icon seems genuine with no agenda or motive to exploit the champ.

Once called, “The Louisville Lip,” he is very quiet among family and friends, the disease rendering him silent. As Miller writes, “he no longer aches with the ambition and the violence of a young god; some of his ego has been thankfully been washed away.”

Muhammad Ali is not a deity, not a hollow myth, but human. Ali admirers and students of American culture will find this a totally engaging, informative book. 


The second Muhammad Ali book, Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, is an essential volume to understand the significance of the 1960s and the black equality campaign.

Its authors, Randy Roberts, a distinguished professor of history at Purdue University, and Johnny Smith, an assistant professor of American History at Georgia Tech, explore the complex friendship between the boxing champion Ali and the Black Muslim firebrand Malcolm X, placed in the context of the turbulent times in which they lived.

Well researched, the writers poured over the private papers of Malcolm X, Alex Haley, who co-wrote the run away bestseller, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, FBI files, government surveillance reports, State Department records, and interviews of friends and associates of both men.

In that research, they discovered a common thread in the pair, a trait of multiple identities. As for the boxer, they cite the passivity of Cassius Clay, the religious novice of Cassius X, and then the fully formed practitioner of Elijah Muhammad's harsh doctrine. Even his associates say there was an aura of mystery around him, “the riddle of Cassius Clay.”

With Malcolm, he was “a man of many masks,” with identities of the quiet Malcolm Little, the hustler Detroit Red, the redeemed Malcolm X, and after his trip to Middle East, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

When interviewed by the media, the unaware Clay seemed unpolitical, saying: “I’m a boxer, and I don’t really don’t want to do anything to do with the civil rights program right now.”

Although young Cassius Clay was exposed to the teachings of “The Messenger,” Elijah Muhammad, as far back in the late fifties, he received a record by Louis Farrakhan shortly after that, titled “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell.” He memorized its lyrics and themes. Following a visit to a NOI meeting in Detroit, Clay was impressed by Malcolm’s blistering talk on the history of slavery, house Negroes and field Negroes, Christianity as “the white man’s religion,” and the Bible as “the book of poison.”

While Clay was preparing for a bout with Sonny Liston, Malcolm X appeared on the scene and saw something of substance in the boxer. He saw himself in Clay, because they possessed similar traits: boldness, self-assurance, confidence, and pride. He knew the power of the media-hungry fighter, who could be elevated into a messenger of black pride, self-determination, and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. They became fast friends.

Malcolm X and Ali were like very close brothers,” Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor, said. “It was almost as if they were in love with each other.”

As the sixties continued, protests and riots mounted, and Malcolm X’s stature grew in his aggressive sermons and media statements. One newspaper called him, “the angriest man in America.” He agreed, saying that “my hobby is stirring up Negroes.” However, Elijah Muhammad and his circle, wanting him to stick to religion rather than politics and civil rights, started resenting the popularity of the glib spokesman. That was not helped when Malcolm X said to the press that the killing of JFK was a matter of “chickens coming home to roost.”

After being disciplined, Malcolm X made an accusation about “The Messenger” having illicit relations with several secretaries, engaging in lavish spending, and other irregularities. He realized he might be killed so he tightened his bond to Ali, but word came down that Muslims should have no contact with Malcolm X. Ali stopped taking calls from the former spokesman.

Alex Haley, author of Roots and along with Malcolm’s autobiography, quoted Ali in September 1964: “You don’t buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it.” It seems Haley exploited the split between the men to add to drama to increase sales.

Isolated and ridiculed by former friends and members of the NOI, Malcolm X was in fear for his life, as well as those of his family. There was a firebombing at his home in New York. Finally, the spokesman was killed at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21st, 1965, by a team of enforcers.

This is a thoughtful, bold, and provocative book about a friendship between two controversial figures who shaped the future of black culture. The chapters on Ali’s life and career are superb, full of punch and verve, along with the anecdotes about ”The Messenger” and the Nation of Islam. They bristle with colorful detail and haunting revelations that leave you with chills, all rushing to that fatal, grim outcome.

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