Books for Christmas: Sport - Float like a butterfly, sting like a fee

AS MUHAMMAD Ali's powers decline, his place in the affections of the sporting public seems ever more secure. The Ali publishing industry was kick-started by Thomas Hauser's peerless oral biography at the start of the decade, and as Ali steps up to receive the numerous Sportsman of the Century awards coming his way, it is appropriate that two of the best sports books of 1999 concern the man and his times. Mike Marqusee's Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (Verso, pounds 17) is as much about the times as the man. Ali may be everyone's hero now, but for a large part of his career, and in spite of foreign supporters, most of his fellow-Americans despised this draft- dodging, uppity black Muslim. Marqusee's exhaustively detailed book sets him against a backdrop of civil rights, Malcolm X, Vietnam and all the rest of that giddy decade.

King of the World (Picador, pounds 14.99) by the New Yorker editor David Remnick is a different kind of book, more conventional in scope and mostly covering well-charted territory. But focusing on only the first few years of Ali's career allows room for plenty of colour and detail, and the book is a delight in its evocation of the heady spirit that emanated from The Greatest.

Both the Ali books made the five-strong shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. In a lean year for football blockbusters, a notable absence from that list was Sir Alex Ferguson's autobiography, Managing My Life (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 18.99) - especially curious given that it was written with the assistance of Hugh McIlvanney, the doyen of British sportswriting.

Sir Alex largely eschews serialisation-friendly sensationalism, though he does take the opportunity to settle one or two scores. His most severe words are reserved for his own legendarily tight-fisted club. "How could it be right to pay the man in charge of Manchester United less than several others in the Premiership?" he asks.

Outside football, the closest thing to United is the New York Yankees - baseball's richest club, 25 times winners of the World Series and a team which polarises emotions in much the same way as the Mancunian millionaires. Dean Chadwin's Those Damn Yankees (Verso, pounds 20) recounts the team's gaudy story, against the backdrop of last year's World Series victory. Chadwin packs his account with an abundance of telling facts and anecdotes. He is particularly good at conveying baseball's timeless appeal, which he describes as "the sweet interplay of memory with present motion".

America has gone to great lengths to build a baseball heritage, even concocting an entirely imaginary tale about its alleged invention in 1839 (in fact, it had existed under different names for centuries). Cricket has no need for such fictions, and Derek Birley's impressively researched A Social History of English Cricket (Aurum Press, pounds 20) is replete with fascinating tales from the last 300 years. One of my favourites was the notice put up before the match between Kent and Hambledon in 1772: "People are requested to keep their dogs at home, otherwise they will be shot."

Graeme Fife's Tour de France: the history, the legend, the riders (Mainstream, pounds 14.99), his idiosyncratic history of what many believe is the hardest, cruellest experience sport has to offer, is framed within his own journey over some of the Tour's most celebrated mountains.

As he completes the climb over Mont Ventoux, where Tommy Simpson died in 1967, he tells himself: "Never never, never will I ride up that mountain again, never, never." Though few of us are crazy enough to emulate Fife, we are there with him because he is one of us.

Perhaps the book that speaks most directly to sporting Everyman - the likes of you and me - is the fantasy-fulfilling Playgrounds of the Gods (Mainstream, pounds 15.99). Ian Stafford spent a year persuading some of the world's best sportsmen to allow him to train and compete with them. Rugby Union's Springboks and the Olympic champion rower Steve Redgrave were among those who took Stafford's mind and body to the limits of their endurance.

Stafford saved the most insane leg of his venture till last, going three rounds with Roy Jones Junior, the world light-heavyweight champion and the deadliest pound-for-pound boxer around. When the longest nine minutes of his life were up, Stafford writes, "I leant against the ropes to support my battered body. Mario jumped into the ring and wiped the blood away from my face... Roy ambled over and we hugged. Just for a second, there was a look of respect on the man's face. `You've got the heart of a lion,' he said."

For that feat alone, Stafford deserves whatever literary prizes are going this year.