Books: The motormouth progenitor of rap

I'm a Little Bit Special: A Muhammed Ali Reader edited by Gerald Early Yellow Jersey Press pounds 8
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Yes, he was a boxer, he hit people for money, but the greatest athlete of the American century was more than that.

People who didn't really like the fight game, who had never bothered with it before, stayed up to watch him whup Liston or Frazier and they knew that something special was going on, even if they were not sure what. Ali, as Cassius Clay became under the influence of Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, was the Great Entertainer, the motormouth progenitor of rap, who famously floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee and had no quarrel with them Vietcong.

In his introduction to this selection of essays and interviews by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Wole Soyinka, Hunter S Thompson and Norman Mailer (on devastating form), the editor Gerald Early says Ali is in danger of being overesteemed by a society that once laughed at or hated him, which would diminish his status as a black man of some illustrious complexity. "As a result of his touching, or poignant, or pathetic, or tragic (take your pick) appearance at the torch-lighting ceremony at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta [Ali] has become, for new generations that did not grow up with him and for the older generations that did, the Great American Martyr, our new Lincoln, our new Martin Luther King, Oh, Father Abraham, Oh, Father Martin, Oh, Father Muhammad: the man whose hands, once unerring pistons of punishment in the prizefighting ring, tremble from boxing-induced Parkinson's disease; the man whose voice is such a slurred whisper that he, who was once called the Louisville Lip because he loved talking so much, does not like to speak in public and rarely does; the once-uncompromising black nationalist now reduced, like Orson Welles at the end, to performing magic tricks for the crowd as if he were parodying his own pop-culture greatness, exposing it as an illusion, just as his nationalism had been, just as his cultist/religious self had been."

Ali attracts prose like that, and if you can bob and weave through the flurry and counterpunch of metaphor and hyperbole this is a mes- merising collection, full of profound thoughts and little insights into a strange life. There is very little direct reportage of the fights, which can be disconcerting, but then as anyone who reads it will surely reflect, Ali was so very much more than a boxer.