Muhammad Ali: Human – A Review of “The Tao of Muhammad Ali”

The Tao of Muhammad Ali

It’s hard not to start this review with some trite clichéd truism like “Muhammad Ali is undeniably the most famous and celebrated sports personality of the last century”. I don’t know why the man’s name hasn’t just become a part of the English language to define a living legend. Ali’s life story seems to be a model for a mythological hero in any country’s culture – the hero is a figure of masculine dominance; he’s a fighter, but he is also a spiritual leader, a political leader, a man who stood up for what he believed in and sacrificed everything. He was controversial when he was at the height of his boxing career, but today it is obvious that he has won over the majority and his strengths have been remembered by history. Today, most of his critics are rarely heard from and generally seem to consist of what appears to be hard right wing sympathizers.[i] Forgiven are Ali’s racist separatist views, influenced by the radical religious cult, the Nation of Islam. Forgiven is Ali’s hypocritical womanizing whilst he preached about the virtue of his religion. Forgiven is the way Ali ridiculed certain opponents past the point of showmanship, unfairly painting fellow African Americans, like Joe Frazier and George Foreman, as “Uncle Toms”. Forgiven are the controversies over certain bouts, such as Ali’s first match with Englishman, Henry Cooper. Remembered and celebrated is just about everything else. And like the story of many heroes of ancient mythology, it seems to have a great deal of pathos towards its finale. This was clearly not Davis Miller’s intention when he wrote undoubtedly his best work, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali”.

This is not a biography of Muhammad Ali. Unlike the companion book, “The Tao of Bruce Lee”, there is no separate section that looks at the great man’s life story and career. We don’t hear much about the story of a 12 year old Ali being directed to a boxing gym by a kindly police officer when he says he wants to beat up the kid who stole his bike or the build-up to his various fights or his spiritual evolution or his political stance against the war in Vietnam. There is little regarding his dramatic comebacks and his eventual decline in boxing or even his famous quotes. Miller says that he has little interest in regurgitating information that can be found in most boxing history books and biographies on Ali. He does reference key moments in the Ali’s life, but only as a tool to juxtapose them with his own life and explain how it influenced and inspired him. As is the trademark of Miller’s style, the book is very much a story about his own life and is a self-described “non-fiction novel”, freely admitting, as with the Bruce Lee book, that parts of the story are fictionalized to aid flow. This point may be confusing to some readers and certainly those who are used to the regular easy-going straightforward autobiography or biography, but I think it will win over the majority.

Miller doesn’t dwell on his childhood bullying episodes, which seem more intrinsically linked to the Bruce Lee line of influence and his decision to take up martial arts, but the book is more about how Ali gave him a sense of identity. He describes the terrible impact his mother’s death had on him and later his loving father’s, as well as his struggles with his marriage and his career choices, first as a professional martial artist then as a video rental clerk and finally as a writer.

Miller’s first physical introduction occurred when the two fought in a short exhibition bout in the 1970s – kickboxer versus boxer. After the author’s dreams of becoming the world’s greatest martial artist had subsided and he had settled into married life with a steady job in a chain of video stores, he chanced upon Ali again. This time the great man had his Winnebago parked at his mother’s house and Miller took the opportunity, and so the friendship began. Throughout his time with Ali, Miller seems to be under no illusion that the world’s most famous living human being is well-practiced in making his fans feel special and that he probably didn’t remember the author early on in their relationship. This provides an interesting juxtaposition to the teenage Miller who idolizes Ali and created his own personal connection with the myth of the man.

Having only really known Ali years after his last professional match, Miller’s writing focuses on the time where many might feel the legend of the great fighter ends: Ali’s years in “retirement”. The inverted commas are in there for good reason, as it would appear that the man was busier than ever after his fighting career finished. This is the part that many consider to be the tragedy of the story. In “The Tao of Muhammad Ali” a key part of the story is Miller’s struggle to get his article “My Dinner with Muhammad Ali” published due to editors of newspapers and magazines considering the post-fighting Ali to be “too painful” a subject. Miller disagrees and feels that he has been misrepresented.

The public perception of Ali in the 1980s and to the present day is that he is a frail shadow of his former self, a pitiful figure of a man who is a slave to his mental illness (Parkinson’s Syndrome, often incorrectly reported as Parkinson’s Disease) and a recluse. Although Ali generally shuns the media and is understandably very suspicious of anyone who wishes to produce work on him, he has been an incredibly active individual and meets hundreds of new people on a regular basis. Miller describes the time and patience Ali has with everyone he signs memorabilia for and his relentless dedication to the causes he believes in. He retains his razor sharp wit and during the time Miller describes, he has a surprising amount of energy. Contrary to popular belief he was still training during the ‘80s and Miller even describes how he successfully sparred with some young boxers in front a large audience, shocking everyone in attendance. If this isn’t enough, Miller’s book recounts the enormous amount of world-travelling Ali did, including the negotiation of the release of hostages from Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War.

Whenever Ali was televised he presented a carefully constructed persona of an incredibly cocky man and a man who regularly defied the odds. He destroyed his opponents inside and outside the ring. He was as big a master of psychological warfare and self-publicity as he was a physical fighter. However, aside from the massive entourage of users and abusers that helped suck his finances and over-extend his boxing career, there are many people he knew who cannot but feel affection for the man. Few bought Ali’s harsh putting down of non-black friends during a Michael Parkinson interview, as being no more than associates. Miller describes Ali as a man who sincerely cared for other people and perhaps regretted the effect he had on his opponents. It’s a well-documented fact that George Foreman’s career was effectively put on hold for two decades after Ali handed him his first defeat in the most celebrated upsets/comebacks in the history of the sport. Foreman is briefly interviewed in this book after Miller sits in on one of his sermons. He would later make an amazing comeback of his own. Just about all of Ali’s opponents forgave the man for his showbusiness persona and pre-fight trash talk, some became friends. However, it would appear that Joe Frazier, the fighter most closely associated with Ali due to their three titanic fights and much-publicized feud, has never forgiven his boxing nemesis. This very real feud is well-documented in Mark Kram’s excellent “The Ghosts of Manila”. Miller describes it as a one-sided affair in his observations of Ali at a 20th anniversary dinner held to celebrate the two fighters’ first encounter, “The Fight of the Century”. This was the only bout Frazier won. Frazier is polite to Ali, but pretty much provides a cold shoulder when his old opponent tries to embrace him. It’s a sad episode and seems to show that Ali is genuinely concerned for the way he hurt Frazier.

Miller’s eccentric writing style and his desire to present Ali as a human as well as a myth makes his work stand out. He says that he tried literally emulate the fighter (along with the Bruce Lee) during his evolution as a martial artist and a professional kickboxer, and years later did this again through his writing. With tongue not as firmly in cheek as listeners might have thought he proclaimed that he was going to be the greatest biographer of Ali in history. This might not be best biography ever written on Muhammad Ali, but it is perhaps the best book featuring the great fighter I have read.

[i] The only exception I have read in recent years was Robert W. Smith, a very well respected martial artist, historian, ex-boxer and very much on the left of politics. Far from marvelling at Ali’s technique and style, Smith believed Marciano was the last great heavyweight boxer and, in his opinion, that wasn’t saying much. Smith wasn’t a fan of Bruce Lee either and I guess is the polar opposite to Davis Miller.

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