By Thomas Gerbasi
There are easier assignments than taking on a biography of a man who has probably had more words written about him than any other in the last hundred years, at least in sports, and most certainly in the boxing world.
But Jonathan Eig, who has already tackled the likes of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Al Capone, was ready for the challenge of writing Ali: A Life, a 640-page tome which will be released on Oct. 3. It was a project that lasted almost five years, as Eig attempted to give a complete view of a man so many great writers had put pen to paper about.
From Thomas Hauser, who wrote the definitive Ali bio, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, in 1991, to the likes of David Remnick, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Randy Roberts, Johnny Smith, Leigh Montville, Dave Kindred and Budd Schulberg, the best of the best have told the story of the legendary former heavyweight champion. Some took a view of his entire life, others just portions of it, but suffice to say that there is a lot of material out there on “The Greatest.”
So what made Eig take on a literary title fight like this?
“It’s a really tricky thing to answer because, on the one hand, yeah, a lot has been written about him and a lot of great writers have written about him, but nobody had taken the big, long look, which you can only do after some time has passed,” Eig said. “I felt like somebody needed to come in and do the big look, completely objective, with no ties to Ali, without hands tied at all, and this was the right time to do it because you could put the 60s and 70s into perspective now. We know what they meant to us and to society. And you’ve still got a fair number of people alive who knew Ali and knew him well, so it seemed like the perfect time to do it. And it struck me, no pun intended, as the greatest story of all-time. What an opportunity to go big and tell one of the most fascinating lives of the 20th century, maybe the most, in my mind.”
Yet for someone entering the bizarre world of boxing without ever having set foot in it before, the idea of starting from scratch was both exhilarating and intimidating, and walking that line between both feelings allowed Eig to track down anyone and everyone he could who had a connection to Ali and a story to tell.
“It always intimidates me,” he laughs. “I was scared every day I was working on this. But fear can be a good thing; fear can drive you to work harder.”
Clearly, the most intimidating figure in the whole process was Ali, who passed away in June 2016 without seeing the finished product. Eig only got to meet Ali once, a meeting chronicled on Eig’s excellent podcast Chasing Ali, and he didn’t interview “The Greatest” for the book, but he was always in the room with Eig in one way, shape or form as he wrote. But when it was over, the author did get to exhale and consider it a job well done.
“The whole time I worked on this, almost five years, I felt like I was a faker, that I did not belong in the ring with this man,” he said. “And little by little, I did it, and the next thing you know, I lasted 15 rounds and I lived to tell about it. So it was an amazing feeling (to complete the book). And most importantly, to know that I did it right. I didn’t leave any stone unturned, I talked to everybody I possibly could, and I took as long as I needed. I didn’t try to rush it to make a deadline. I felt like this was the biggest, most important thing I was ever gonna do and I really wanted to put everything I had into it. And I felt good, I felt proud of it. So it was a good feeling to get it done.”
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Nothing that takes nearly five years to complete is easy, and in this sport, there will be characters that don’t want to talk, that will only talk if paid for an interview, or that are just plain ornery. Like Ferdie Pacheco, who nearly pulled off the trifecta as Eig chose him for his first interview. It was the kind of meeting that could have made Eig second guess this project, but he soldiered on.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “It’s the thrill of the chase. So if I could get Pacheco and it goes badly, but at least I get him on the record, maybe I could try again another time. If not, move on, let’s see what Don King is doing today and maybe I’ll get him on the phone. So you’ve got to take some punches to land some punches, as every boxer knows.”
And it’s clear from talking to Eig that he enjoyed spending time in what Jimmy Cannon described as “the red light district of sports.”
“I did not want to ever finish working on this book,” Eig laughs. “I’d like to keep writing this book for the rest of my life because there are so many great characters. Some of them are nuts, some of them are sweethearts. It’s the most interesting group of people I’ve ever written about, and I can’t imagine going back and writing a presidential biography or something after this. And it’s not just getting to interview the famous ones like Don King and Larry Holmes, but some of the guys who people don’t know about. They all have such great stories that you could just go on and on forever with.”
Six hundred pages isn’t even enough to do those justice, even when just considering Ali’s opponents, let alone his family, entourage, ex-wives and those who covered his career. But the most difficult task facing Eig was giving an objective and complete view of a man who was polarizing for a good portion of his life before becoming a beloved figure in the final years of his life.
“I just tried to call it like I see it and be really honest,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your bulls**t detector up at all times and don’t fall for Ali when everybody else is falling for him and don’t jump on the bandwagon when everybody’s bashing him. Just try to analyze this stuff and make sense of it. And one of the advantages I have is that his conscientious objector claims were fifty years ago now, so you can look at it from a historical perspective and analyze what he said and why he said it and try to make sense of it in a way that you really couldn’t if you were Norman Mailer or Budd Schulberg, who were covering it back then.”
If boxing has a literary season, Ali: A Life is clearly the highlight of it and it will most certainly be the most scrutinized book of this year, especially by the crowd that will say, “Another Ali book?” But Eig’s track record is stellar, and the reality that he was willing to go through the process to make it here and make a statement about Ali’s life that no one has in a long time does speak volumes. And we will be reading because it’s Muhammad Ali, a man who fascinated and captivated the world like no other. Why?
“There’s no one answer, it’s different for everybody,” Eig said. “But, for me, the thing is that he challenged everybody, he picked fights, he tried to be provocative and he was speaking up to power. And what made it so interesting is that he always did it with this twinkle in his eye and with this sense of humor. Malcolm X couldn’t do that, Martin Luther King couldn’t do that. Martin Luther King was actually a funny guy with a great sense of humor, but he had to project this image of strength and passion all the time. Ali could do it all. He could piss us off and he could crack us up. He was real. He was never a phony. And people sensed that.”