Ali's extraordinary transformation into seer and mystic
BOOK OF THE WEEK: The Tao of Muhammad Ali by Davis Miller (Vantage Original, pounds 7.99)
Journalist and novelist Andrew Martin is the author of the 'Jim Stringer' series of novels based around railways. He has written for the Independent on Sunday, the Evening Standard, the Sunday Times and the New Statesman among others.
Monday 03 March 1997
Few boxers - few sportsmen - have been the objects of such awe and devotion than Muhammad Ali. He is the dominant sporting figure of the 20th century and yet today Ali remains something of a mystery: because of debilitation caused by Parkinson's syndrome and the restrictions of his Islamic faith.
Miller, in his elegant, moving portrait of the phenomenon that is Ali, addresses this paradox with rare grace and insight.
But, as the title suggests, Miller's work is more than sporting hagiography. Miller's portrait of Ali is inextricably linked to his own struggle to become a writer after a barren stint as a professional kick-boxer.
Remarkably, while living in Louisville, Miller befriends the former three- times world heavyweight champion and The Tao of Muhammad Ali is a heartfelt response to the plea of Ali's fourth wife, Lonnie: "People believe what they read in the press," she tells Miller. "I just wish some writer could tell the truth about Muhammad, could find a way to his soul."
Miller is ideally suited to the task: Ali is his inspiration, a mystic, a stuttering seer. Described as "a luminescent Buddha", to Miller, Ali is everything Zen: "Ever since I began watching him [Ali], he has always carried himself as if he is centred in his own destiny, as if he is doing that which he intended to. Ali has been a creature of the earth and of sky: He has acted as though he owns everything, and nothing. He has claimed to be the Most Important Person to have lived, and the simplest of men. He seemed to be the world's wisest man, and some kind of virgin."
Miller's admiration for Ali is widely shared. Ali's odd job man, the sonorously named Floyd Bass, for instance, declares: "Every day that man makes me glad to be alive, glad I know him. I tell you, that man's a real, live angel."
Ali's own assessment of his achievements is, for a man who appeared to thrive on bravado, surprisingly humble: "All the things I've done, all the praise, all the fame, don't none of it mean nothing. It's all only dust."
Such insights makes Miller's homage to Ali a compelling book, one that ranks among the best of contemporary American writing.
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