CRAWFORD | From millions of words, five must-read tributes to Mu - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | From millions of words, five must-read tributes to Muhammad Ali

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Associated Press photo. Associated Press photo.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — I wish I could tell you that I have a fancy stat telling you how many words have been written about Muhammad Ali since his death Friday evening. But there’s no way to count.

All I can offer you is this. In the tidal wave of coverage of Ali in the past several days, I have a handful of stories that you must read.

All are notable for their insight into the man, for their perspective and — maybe most important, where I’m concerned — the quality of their prose. This is some outstanding writing. 

I was a little disappointed that of the many speakers at Ali’s memorial service, a sportswriter wasn’t included. He invited them into his locker room and life, took them into his confidence, revealed layers and thoughts to him that no athlete would today. They were a big part of the reason the world saw him as it did. (For an outstanding look at how Ali affected the practice of sportswriting itself, click here for Bryan Curtis' piece at The Ringer.)

There will be no eulogy from a sportswriter at Ali’s service, so let these serve as a start. You’ll hear none better.

Of course, there are dozens of others you could include. Maybe when this process is completely over, I’ll embark on a more complete list.

But for now, if you don’t have time to sit down and read War and Peace, or its equivalent in Ali coverage, click on these links, and enjoy.

1. MUHAMMAD ALI WAS THE GREATEST, AND IT WAS NEVER ENOUGH
By Dave Kindred, FoxSports.com

Anyone who has read Dave Kindred, former sports editor of The Courier-Journal and longtime writer for The Washington Post and Sporting News, is not surprised that he’s batting leadoff here.

I’ll pat myself on the back for a second here, if only for my ability to recognize writing of the highest order. I closed my long obit piece on Ali with the same Kindred story he used to begin his — the scene of Kindred riding down a Pennsylvania road, with Ali behind the wheel, talking about death.

It’s an important lesson for you young writers — only steal from the best. And Kindred demonstrates here why he is one of the best in the business. An excerpt:

Ali, quickly: a prizefighter, all silk and all steel, the best of his time, maybe the best of all time. An entertainer and comic, a preacher and politician. He left his mother’s Baptist church for the Nation of Islam, where he walked with Malcolm X. He faced down the U.S. government when it wanted him in prison for refusing induction into its army. Long reviled for good reason, it was for good reason that he became revered. Presidents invited him to the White House. George H.W. Bush sent him on a CIA mission of sorts and Jimmy Carter made him an envoy to Africa. Leonid Brezhnev embraced him at the Kremlin. He traded jokes with the Dalai Lama. He lit the torch opening the 1996 Olympics. Beautiful at rest, breathtaking in motion, Muhammad Ali was as near to living flame as a man can get.

Ali’s life was so rich that any sentence out of that last paragraph could be turned into a book if not a movie or play. Good heavens, 40 years after covering Clay-Liston, Robert Lipsyte wrote an Ali opera. Norman Mailer threw his best stuff at the champ. Budd Schulberg saw him triumphant in defeat. George Plimpton quoted Ali’s shortest poem: “Me! Whee!!” A.J. Leibling saw him at 21 and wrote that he floated like a butterfly. Ali and Marianne Moore collaborated on a poem over lunch, rhyming away Ernie Terrell: “He will get nothing, nothing but hell.” Even Joyce Carol Oates mined Ali’s life for its principles and betrayals, pathos and comedy, hypocrisy and heroism.

Read the rest here.

2. MUHAMMAD ALI: THE MAN BEHIND THE ICON
By Thomas Hauser, The Guardian

Hauser wrote the authorized biography of Ali, and is one of the world’s foremost writers on the sport of boxing. He has written four books in all, on Ali. And the details he provides in this piece are just too numerous and too good to duplicate here. You’re just going to have to sit and read this start to finish, slowly.

Hauser is the one writer who had the best access to Ali, I would say, just before Parkinson’s took its greatest toll. It hadn’t taken away his humor, however. Hauser talked about signing copies of the book, and how he could only do a few hundred at a time before his hand got sore and he couldn’t form the letters correctly.

Ali looked at him and smiled, referring to his own physical condition, “Now you know. It wasn’t the boxing. It was the autographs.”

Hauser got to the bottom of the story of Ali supposedly throwing his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River (he confessed to Hauser that he did not). Two more short vignettes:

My personal relationship with Ali began in 1988, when we met in New York to explore the possibility of my writing the book that ultimately became Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. There was a threshold issue I had to confront. Like millions of admirers, I’d seen Muhammad on television. Sometimes he’d looked well. Other times, the light seemed all but gone from his eyes. I didn’t want to involve myself with the project unless Muhammad was capable of making a significant contribution to it. And I didn’t want to spend several years working on a book that would be a source of depression rather than joy.

To resolve those issues, after meeting initially with Muhammad and his wife, Lonnie Ali, I accepted their invitation to spend five days at their home in Berrien Springs, Michigan. My first day there, I was intimidated by Ali’s presence. I found it hard to make eye contact with him. Other than John F Kennedy, who was my boyhood hero, I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who would have affected me in that manner; certainly not to that extent. Then, on the second morning, I went downstairs to the kitchen. Muhammad was sitting at the breakfast table, finishing his cereal and toast. He looked up and asked if I wanted cornflakes or granola. And in that moment, I realised that any distance between us was my fault. Muhammad didn’t want to be put on a pedestal. He wanted me to relate to him the same way I’d relate to anyone else.

___________

There are so many memories I have of Ali that conjure up a smile. Once, when Muhammad and I got in his car to do some errands, he told me, “You get in back; I’ll drive; and it will be like Driving Miss Daisy.”

On another occasion, when Ali and Lonnie were coming to my apartment for dinner, I invited one of his favourite rock stars – Chubby Checker, who lived in Philadelphia – to join us. Chubby drove 90 miles to New York. When Ali saw him, he started jumping up and down, shouting, “It’s Chubby Checker! It’s Chubby Checker!” But what touched me most about that evening was an exchange that came after dinner. We were sitting in the living room. Muhammad looked at Chubby and asked, “Did you drive all the way from Philadelphia just to see me?” Chubby said yes. And Ali responded, shaking his head, “I can’t believe it. I’m honoured.”

Enjoy the rest by clicking here.

3. WHY THEY CALLED HIM THE GREATEST, AND WHY I CALLED HIM MY FRIEND
By Jerry Izenberg, Newark Star-Ledger

If Hauser has things locked down on his side of the Atlantic, I don’t know if anyone mined the well of experience with Ali better than Izenberg in this column — at least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Goodness, Izenberg has had such a rich career, seen so much history, knew so many great athletes and has that great newspaper columnist’s sense for pace that this was a column that really only he could write.

Pulling an excerpt is difficult, because every paragraph is great. But start with these and then read on:

I watched Ali press the flesh in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, in Kinshasa and London, in Vegas and New York, saw the magic of his charisma hypnotize Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and enough other entertainment superstars to light up the Hollywood sky. I saw it dwarf the psyches of absolute-power heads of state like Zaire's Mobuto Seseseko and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos. I saw it turn politicians, captains of industry and Howard Cosell into slack-jawed, Jell-o-kneed sycophants.

His was a bond forged with a constituency that didn't have to meet him to know him, a constituency that transcended all economic, racial, ethnic and political barriers.

With his passing they lost a hero.

With his passing, I lost a friend.

Read the rest here.

4. THE OUTSIZED LIFE OF MUHAMMAD ALI
By David Remnick, The New Yorker

Remnick began his reporting career at The Washington Post in 1982 and they put him on a beat covering the United States Football League. Within six years he was the paper’s Moscow correspondent, covering demise of the Soviet Union. From that, he wrote a book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, which won him a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1998, he published his biography of Ali, King of the World. When people ask me what single book they should read about Ali, I recommend Remnick’s, or Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” Remnick met with the champ in Michigan, and spent lots of time in research. His work is valuable to Louisvillians for the picture it gives of this city, and this piece also spends more time on Louisville than any of the others here. He talked about Ali in an interview with WFPL’s Rick Howlett this week. An excerpt from his column:

When I was doing the research for my book on Ali, I interviewed one of his main early antagonists in the ring, Floyd Patterson, who was clearly suffering from trauma-induced dementia. Patterson could barely string a few sentences together. Sonny Liston, his other early rival, had died years earlier with heroin on him. Ali, for his part, was living with his wife, Lonnie, at their farm, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He was suffering from Parkinson’s, and it was hard to believe that the accumulation of punishment (from Frazier, from Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, from a lifetime of beatings) had not been at least partially responsible for his condition. But he refused any note of regret. We watched films of his fights with Liston and couldn’t help admiring his younger self: “Sooo pretty!” More than a generation after his retirement, and now, after his passing, Ali and his story remain known everywhere in the world. How many today know the name of his current inheritor, the heavyweight champion of the world? The story of Muhammad Ali will long outlast the sport he took up, sixty-two years ago in Louisville, to avenge the theft of his beloved red bicycle.

One last thing: at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley tonight, Paul Simon was singing “The Boxer.” Pausing before the final verse, he told the audience, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but Muhammad Ali just passed away.”

Read the rest here.

5. ALI’S ATHLETIC GREATNESS WAS MERELY A PLATFORM FOR THE LARGER MAN
By Thomas Boswell, The Washington Post

I suppose what I like about this column is that, like me, Boswell’s experience with Ali was limited (though he had several experiences that he made the most of).

Boswell captured the different things Ali means to different generations, and concludes with a nice kicker of an anecdote. Boswell, because he didn’t spend as much time with Ali, didn’t have much good “stuff” as the others. But because of his skill as a writer, he put together a piece just as outstanding as any.

An excerpt: 

In all contexts but one, the best athletes who have come after Ali, from Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods to Tom Brady to whomever you would name, seem worthy of their accolades. Yet compared with Ali — and only in that light — they suddenly shrink. Jordan seems like a sneaker salesman, Woods a golf obsessive and Brady a guy whose big stand-on-principle is that you can’t absolutely prove he deflated a football.

Everyone has his own Muhammad Ali. We’re all entitled. The Greatest of All Time was that big.

Every part of him was not a character for the world stage, though he adored that role and was a glutton for adoration. He had a full adult supply of faults, especially endless psychological cruelty against his opponents, like Joe Frazier, whom he mocked at a deeply personal level that went far beyond any normal concept of gamesmanship. In contrast to that mean streak, those who knew him personally often recalled his lightning quick humor, affection and acts of spontaneous generosity or compassion.

My version of Ali was and always will be the powerful hero of my youth, seen from an enormous distance. But irony seldom sleeps. Years later, near the end of his career, I met him. I covered one of his three brutal fights with Ken Norton. I became friends with his trainer, Angelo Dundee, who also trained Sugar Ray Leonard. And one day, for a feature story, I sought out Ali in the furthest place I could find from a boxing ring — him signing books at a Washington department store.

We got stuck between floors in a crowded elevator for more than 10 minutes. Ali couldn’t stop talking — not his usual banter, just a man trapped in an elevator and clearly alarmed, maybe even scared, though not at any danger since there wasn’t any but at the loss of control. When a figure looms as large in his time as Ali, you can forget that, of course, he is “just a man.” That he is merely one of us makes his deeds, his uniqueness and his strength in his convictions all the more remarkable.

Read the rest here.

BONUS VIDEO ESSAY: REMEMBERING MUHAMMAD ALI
By Bill Nack, ESPN

All of us horse-racing types know Nack as the ultimate biographer of Secretariat, whose column on Secretariat’s death, “Pure Heart,” http://www.si.com/longform/belmont/ has to be counted among the best American sports writing ever produced. But Nack covered everything for Sports Illustrated, and the video essay he recorded for ESPN, which ran on the night of Ali’s death, is as good a piece of writing as any you’ll read on Ali.

Watch it here.

ALSO NOTE: If you want to spend more time on the subject, there’s no better place to spend it than one of two archives available: from The Courier-Journal and from Sports Illustrated. The great work recorded in those places will make you not only mourn for the fighter, but for the publications themselves in their heyday.

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