Books for Christmas: The transcendent sting of the butterfly: Ken Jones looks at current books about boxing legends

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The Independent Online
SHORTLY before Muhammad Ali fought for the last time, a miserable defeat against Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas almost exactly 11 years ago, some enterprising soul issued a poster that depicted the 60 professional contests he had previously undertaken.

Each bout is represented by a glove. Ali won the heavyweight championship three times, a record, and those triumphs are celebrated in gold. The other gloves are coloured red. Within the square they form is a tale without equal in the history of sport.

It comes flooding back in Muhammad Ali Memories (Rizzoli International Publications Inc, pounds 17.95 paperback, pounds 30 clothback), a collection of superb photographs taken by Neil Leifer throughout Ali's career.

When Ali became 50 years old this year, people reflected sadly on the impairment he endures in middle age, some doubtless concluding that the great man willingly struck a Faustian pact. To be reminded of what Ali was, to see him again in the full, joyous bloom of youth - thinking him beautiful was never an exaggeration - makes the thought unavoidable.

Leifer's work and Thomas Hauser's elegant introduction to interviews first obtained for Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, published last year, provide vivid recollections of a career that transcended boxing.

The truth about Ali as he is now? 'I realised over time that despite Ali's speech difficulties his health is better than most people think it is,' Hauser writes. 'Muhammad suffers from Parkinson's syndrome, which refers to a series of symptoms, the most noticeable of which are slurred speech, stiffness in walking, and an occasional facial 'mask'. The most common cause of Parkinson's syndrome is Parkinson's disease, which Ali does not have. In his case, the symptoms were brought on by repeated blows to the head: blows that destroyed cells in his brain stem that produce a substance called dopamine. But the condition is not life-threatening. Now that Muhammad has stopped boxing, it's no longer degenerative . . . . there are no intellectual deficits. Muhammad's wit is sharp, and his thought processes are clear.'

Who else but Ali? 'I am the greatest] I'm young; I'm handsome; I'm fast. I can't possibly be beat. They all must fall in the round I call. I should be a postage stamp. That's the only way I'll ever be licked. The heavyweight champion of the world should be pretty like me. It ain't bragging if you can back it up. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee. I'm so mean, I make medicine sick. I shook up the world. Me] Whee]'

Didn't he just. Kinshasa, Manila, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur. He loved the camera, and as Leifer's pictures prove, the camera loved him. Robert Lipsyte, an outstanding American sportswriter remembers him thus: 'Ali understood television. He understood the show, whether it was the poetry, the pre-fight weigh-in, or the fight itself. He was a born showman, brilliant at dramatising himself. Whether he would have been the same phenomenon without television is hard to say. But he understood what television wanted; that instead of someone coming down, smiling and shaking hands nicely for stills photographers, television wanted The Provocateur.'

Throughout a large part of Ali's career some of us were grateful, in more ways than one, for the counsels of Dr Ferdie Pacheco, his personal physician. Pacheco is a man of many parts: MD, pharmacist, author, cartoonist, painter, corner man, and for the last 15 years, a boxing commentator. In Muhammad Ali. A View from the Corner (Birch Lane Press, dollars 21.95), yet to be published in Britain, he writes, 'Ali is the perpetual child in us all, Peter Pan. His is the world of paradox, of Alice in Wonderland. Ali is, finally and ironically, a present-day example of the calm, peaceful non-violence of a Gandhi and - the best example of how man is made in God's image and likeness.'

On 7 September 1892, James J Corbett knocked out John L Sullivan in what boxing historians regard as the first official contest for the heavyweight championship. A centenary in the division provides Norman Giller and Neil Duncanson's Crown of Thorns (Boxtree, pounds 17.99) with an opportunity to suggest that the title has always carried a curse, its rewards paid for in human tragedy. In truth all fighters are cursed by the instinct that draws them to the ring.

What else could we think when Sugar Ray Robinson, the most complete boxer in history, the world champion at welterweight and middleweight, fell so deeply into debt that he boxed long after his time. In Sugar Ray. The Sugar Ray Robinson Story (Robson Books, pounds 16.95), Dave Anderson addresses not only a spectacular career but the circumstances that befell Robinson in his later life.

First published in 1970, it has lost none of its poignant recall. 'In the last year of Sugar Ray's career . . . he was boxing's version of a sideshow freak, a name who would fight a nobody. One day I accompanied him to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a leafy town of about 60,000 . . . he didn't have much to do to win, just throw a few left hooks that fooled the judges into thinking he still had something left. When it was over, he got paid. 'About dollars 700,' promoter Sam Silverman told me. In his big days that wouldn't have covered the drinks at the victory party in 'Sugar Ray's' cafe on Seventh Avenue in Harlem.'