The greatest book of all: 34kg Ali biography leads heavyweight publishing division

The iconic champion boxer is leading a craze for really big books ­ and, at £5000, with a price to match. Anthony Barnes reports
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The Independent US

Publishing's growing heavyweight division has a new champion ­ a supersize book weighing in at the equivalent of 34 bags of sugar and, appropriately enough, featuring Muhammad Ali, the greatest himself, as he's never been seen before.

Inside its monster covers, measuring half a metre by half a metre, for those prepared to shell out £5,000 for this most exclusive of books can discover scores of unpublished images of the legendary boxer. Some of them are revealed on this page for the first time.

No face in sport has been more photographed than Ali's. From the bosom of his apparently happy family, later to fracture, to Ali driving with his friend a young Bill Cosby; from the handsome young man in a tuxedo to last year's fragile, ageing but dignified world figure with the Dalai Lama .

Called GOAT ­ Greatest Of All Time, the book will be published later this spring, and is part of a trend in oversize reads which have hit the market in recent years. They are coffee table books in the sense that they are as large as the item of furniture itself.

Like an earlier volume from the same Cologne-based publisher Taschen about the late photographer Helmut Newton, it comes with its own designer stand ­ but only for those prepared to fork out an extra £2,000.

Other heavyweight titles to hit the market have included the photo-led volume Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, which when opened measures seven feet and costs more than £6,000.

The audience for such books is small, but hungry. Taschen says three-quarters of the 10,000 print run for the gigantic GOAT have been snapped up before publication. The firm has already rejected three offers to buy the entire print run.

The lavish book will be printed in two versions. The "champs" edition ­ limited to 1,000 copies and with a £5,000 price tag ­ comes with a stand designed by artist Jeff Koons, who has also, created an inflatable dolphin to accompany it.

The remaining 9,000 are the standard "collectors" edition and the £3,000 cover price includes a Koons print. Both are bound in pink leather ­ the shade of the boxer's first Cadillac ­ by the official bindery to the Vatican.

Taschen's UK-based PR manager, Christa Urbain, said: "The reaction to it has been insane. People love Ali. He was not just a boxer, he was a leader."

Other mammoth tomes from the publisher include the Newton book Sumo and a collection of the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. There are more planned.

Greg Har of, which is taking orders for GOAT, said: "Folks in the publishing world are interested to see how this does, but I think it is more than a stunt. I think there is a market for people owning these titles ­ but I can't imagine someone doing a book that wasn't pictorially based."

Dr Bart Smith, at the British Library, said: "Big books are nothing new, of course; they have a long and distinguished history in centuries past. Maybe big books are coming back into fashion. It certainly shows the book is not dead even though we're told it is about to imminently expire in the computer age."

Ravaged by illness, the man who floated like a butterfly will always be the greatest

By Alan Hubbard

"Parachute me into High Street, China," he once said, "and they'll all know who I am. The Greatest."

Forty years on from the Miami night when the then 22-year-old Cassius Clay became the new world heavyweight champion by dismantling the ogre that was Sonny Liston, he remains the Greatest. And he still stops the traffic.

He did so in Sydney, at the last Olympics, and more recently in London when they gave him a birthday bash at the Hilton hotel. "A living legend," breathed an onlooker in the throng as Muhammad Ali, now stricken with Parkinson's, shuffled along Park Lane.

As the pictures show, the bloated body moves painfully slowly and the face, for most of the time, is expressionless because the condition has immobilised the muscles. But the eyes still twinkle and a smile will play at the corner of his lips as he performs one of his magic tricks for the kids. "How y' doing," he whispers. "Nice to see you again."

It always is. The charisma remains undimmed despite the toll the illness and those last few fateful punches have taken. But it is not so much shaking the hand of Ali that brings a lump to the throat, as the shaking hand of Ali. Those of us privileged to have travelled the world with him, covering his fights from Atlanta to Zaire, Madison Square Garden to Manila, would never have imagined such tragedy could engulf him.

Surely the greatest irony of all is that while Parkinson's has not affected his brain, he struggles now to get out the words that once were his trademark.

No face in sport has been more photogenic, or photographed. From the picture of the apparently happy family, which was later to fracture, to Ali driving with his friend, a young Bill Cosby; from the handsome young man in a tuxedo to last year's ageing but dignified world figure pictured with the Dalai Lama.

Ali was not only the snappers' delight, he was also the scribes' dream. No interview was ever spurned; no agent barred the path; no fee was ever demanded.

"Ahm sooooo pretty," he would say, patting the features that captivated the world, not just the world of sport or boxing, which he transcended from the moment he won his Olympic title in Rome. From his early days in Louisville, Kentucky, to the present, Ali has lived for the limelight, soaking up the adoration of fans and celebrities that fuels his very existence, whether rumbling in the jungle or thrilling in Manila.

Ali may not know your name, but he never forgets a face from the ringside. The last time we met he smiled, leaned down and whispered softly, "It ain't the same any more, is it?"

"No champ," I replied. "It ain't."

Yes, still the Greatest.