Ali's myth sacrificed to our appetite for scandal

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It was inevitable, I suppose, that the legend of Muhammad Ali would not remain safe from the pursuit of a dollar, which is one way of describing widespread reaction to a recently published book that bluntly challenges his status as one of the most important African-American socio-political figures of the 20th century.

Far from going along with the popular view that Ali transcended boxing and did as much as anyone, including Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, to raise the level of black consciousness, Mark Kram's book, The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier portrays him as an ignorant and easily manipulated figure who today would be looked on as a corruptive force, a chronic user of hate language and a sexual profligate.

Significantly, you may think, those are not the words of a modern scrutineer relying on hearsay. For many of its great years, Kram wrote hauntingly about boxing for the American magazine Sports Illustrated before being fired as the result of entering into a financial arrangement with the promoter Don King. ("It was nothing more than a movie treatment," Kram still insists). He spent a lot of time around Ali and, in common with other members of the circus, found ways of compensating for awkward truths.

Kram last spoke to Ali almost 10 years ago when the effects of Parkinson's syndrome compounded by brain damage sustained in the ring were bleakly evident. An article Kram wrote at the time was typical in its moody probing of Ali's willingness to undergo a strange form of treatment that involved replacing his blood. Ali had become old before 50.

While Kram's book contains irrefutable truths about Ali's womanising and his exploitation by the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (today he is an orthodox Muslim) many American toilers in this trade go as far as to suggest that its publication is a betrayal. The New Jersey columnist, Jerry Izenberg, one of the few sportswriters who can claim a close friendship with Ali, says: "Most of what Kram writes is true. But does it stand for the whole man? I don't think so." Provocatively, Kram maintains that Ali's refusal to be inducted for military service at the time of Vietnam ­ "I got no quarrel with them Vietcong" ­ never rang true because he would have been rejected on academic grounds.

If finding no favour with Kram's book, Pat Putnam, who succeeded him at Sports Illustrated, agrees that Ali's stand was taken more out of embarrassment than conscience. "It's no revelation that Ali was barely literate," he said when we spoke this week. "His schooling was that of a black kid in the deep south which was barely any education at all. But for Kram to suggest ignorance is ridiculous."

Putnam, then working in Miami, was with Ali when he failed to meet the US Army's minimum academic standard. "He was heavyweight champion of the world and they rated him dumb," Putnam said. "He didn't know how to handle that because it made him feel small, like he was being put in his place. That, more than anything else, explained his stubbornness. If they thought he was too dumb for duty, why should he fight?"

Ali's face on covers of numerous books, the medal he received from President Clinton for human acts, his trembling hand around the Olympic torch in Atlanta five years ago, are the reasons Kram cites for eviscerating the Ali legend. "I grew weary of all the hagiography," he recently said. "I kept seeing this great social figure, right next to Martin Luther King, and thought: 'This is wrong. Why not do a book about the person I saw, put some flesh and blood on him."' Any number of us who were around throughout Ali's amazing career could have done that, but to what purpose?

By now, we are almost inured to an ugly symptom of our time, the debunking of great figures that comes crawling out of history to satisfy an insatiable appetite for scandal. Ali was a womaniser and often cruel to opponents. Frazier, a broken man himself, has never forgiven the insults Ali poured on him.

So lingering memory becomes Kram's profit-driven prejudice. He describes Ali as a "useful idiot" and "near the moronic level". For that, Kram deserves all the calumny he gets.

Of course, Kram cannot get away from Ali's remarkable presence in the ring and the force of his personality. "Whatever you might have thought of him, you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again." He got that right anyway.