The Best Writing About Muhammad Ali

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Muhammad Ali battles Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Photo: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer of all-time, and he also inspired some of the best sports writing ever, from the likes of Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Plimpton. Some of the best pieces about Ali aren’t available online, but many are. Here, a required reading list in the wake of Ali’s passing.

A.J. Liebling, “Poet and Pedagogue”
The New Yorker, March 3, 1962

The poet, still wrapped in certitude, jabbed, moved, teased, looking the Konzerstuck over before he banged the ivories. By nimble dodging, as in Rome, he rendered the hungry fighter’s attack quite harmless, but this time without keeping his hypnotic stare fixed steadily enough on the punch-hand.

Murray Kempton, “The Champ and the Chump”
The New Republic, March 7, 1963

He fought the first round as though without plan, running and slipping and sneaking punches, like someone killing time in a poolroom. But it was his rhythm and not Liston’s; second by slow second, he was taking away the big bouncer’s dignity. Once Liston had him close to the ropes — where fighters kill boxers — and Clay, very slowly, slipped sideways from a left hook and under the right and away, just grazing the ropes all in one motion, and cut Liston in the eye. For the first time there was the suspicion that he might know something about the trade.

Tom Wolfe, “The Marvelous Mouth”
Esquire, October, 1963

If Cassius really wants to go into his act, if he is in front of a crowd he thinks will really appreciate its Pantagruelian overtones, he turns on a pair of 150-watt eyes and suddenly becomes a star. That is the only way I can think of to describe it. It is in the eyes and in the facial muscles around the eyes, an ability to come alive upon demand.

George Plimpton, “Miami Notebook: Cassius Clay and Malcolm X”
Harper’s, June 1964

Clay’s place was on the mainland, in North Miami, in a low-rent district-a small plain taterwhite house with louvered windows, a front door with steps leading up to a little porch with room for one chair, a front yard with more chairs set around and shaded by a big ficus tree with leaves dusty from the traffic on Fifth Street. His entire entourage stayed there, living dormitory-style, two or three to a room.

LeRoi Jones, “In the Ring”
The Nation, June 29, 1964

Clay is not a fake, and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid; they demonstrate that a new and more complicated generation has moved onto the scene.

Gordon Parks, “The Redemption of the Champion”
Life, September 9, 1966

He woke up one afternoon and simply began talking about his childhood: “I used to lay awake scared, thinking about somebody getting cut up or being lynched. Look like they was always black people I liked. And I always wanted to do something to help those people. But I was too little. Maybe now I can help by living up to what I’m supposed to be. I’m proud of my title and I guess I want people to be proud of me.”

Leonard Shecter, “The Passion of Muhammad Ali”
Esquire, April, 1968

He now is free to talk. He used to be free to fight and he was something to see, the speed of him and the beauty of his motion, his huge, smooth body gliding in a ballet of boxing, his white ring shoes becoming a furry flurr. He was perhaps the best anybody has ever seen, because he had the modern athlete’s body, as swift as it was large, and no boxer ever had one like it before. But then a sergeant in a Houston Selective Service office asked him to take a step forward and he refused because, he said, he was a minister of the Muslim faith in the Nation of Islam. The boxing commission revoked his title as heavyweight champion of the world.

Norman Mailer, “Ego”
Life, March 19. 1971

What kills us about a.k.a. Cassius Clay is that the disagreement is inside us. He is fascinating — attraction and repulsion must be in the same package. So, he is obsessive. The more we don’t want to think about him, the more we are obliged to. There is a reason for it. He is America’s Greatest Ego.

Hunter S. Thompson, “Last Tango in Vegas”
Rolling Stone, May 4, 1978

That is Muhammad Ali’s world, an orbit so high, a circuit so fast and strong and with rarefied air so thin that only ‘The Champ,’ ‘The Greatest,’ and a few close friends have unlimited breathing rights. Anybody who can sell his act for $5 million an hour all over the world is working a vein somewhere between magic and madness

Vic Ziegel, Ali, Spinks, and the Battle of New Orleans
New York, October 2, 1978

Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, was taking care of business. He so desperately wanted to become the first boxer to win the heavyweight title three times that he decided on a strategy he had previously abandoned: He trained.

Gary Smith, “Ali and His Entourage”
Sports Illustrated, April 25, 1988

The first signal of decline was in Ali’s hands. Pacheco began injecting them with novocaine before fights, and the ride went on. Then the reflexes slowed, the beatings began, the media started to question the doctor. And the world began to learn how much the doctor loved to talk.

Davis Miller, “My Dinner With Ali”
Louisville Courier-Journal Magazine, January 1989

You ever seen any magic?” he asked. “You like magic?”

“Not in years,” I said.

He did about 10 tricks. The one that interested me the most required no props. It was a very simple deception. “Watch my feet,” he said, standing maybe eight feet away, his back to me and his arms perpendicular to his sides. Then, although he’d just had real trouble walking, he seemed to levitate about three inches off of the floor. He turned to me and in his thick, slow voice said, “I’m a baadd niggah,” and gave me the old easy Ali smile.

Mark Kram, “Great Men Die Twice”
Esquire, June 1989

Not all, exactly; getting old is the last display for the bread-and-circuses culture. Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it’s been noted, die twice — once as great, and once as men. With grace, preferably, which adds an uplifting, stirring, Homeric touch. If the fall is too messy, the national psyche will rush toward it, then recoil; there is no suspense, no example in the mundane.

Joyce Carol Oates, “The Cruelest Sport”
The New York Review of Books, February 13, 1992

… Ali would have to descend into his physical being and experience for the first time the punishment (“the nearest thing to death”) that is the lot of the great boxer willing to put himself to the test. As Ali’s personal physician at that time, Ferdie Pacheco, said,

[Ali] discovered something which was both very good and very bad. Very bad in that it led to the physical damage he suffered later in his career; very good in that it eventually got him back the championship. He discovered that he could take a punch.

The secret of Ali’s mature success, and the secret of his tragedy: he could take a punch.

William Nack, “The Fight’s Over, Joe”
Sports Illustrated, September 30, 1996

For the next five rounds it was as if Frazier had reached into the darkest bat cave of his psyche and freed all his pent-up rage. In the sixth he pressed and attacked, winging three savage hooks to Ali’s head, the last of which sent his mouthpiece flying. For the first time in the fight, Ali sat down between rounds. Frazier resumed the attack in the seventh, at one point landing four straight shots to the body, at another point landing five. In the ninth, as Ali wilted, the fighting went deeper into the trenches, down where Frazier whistles while he works, and as he landed blow upon blow he could hear Ali howling in pain. In his corner after the 10th, Ali said to Pacheco, “This must be what dyin’ is like.”

Cal Fussman, “Ali Now”
Esquire, October, 2003

There are very few people in the history of the planet who could make everybody in the world stop for a moment, forget their differences, smile, and applaud in unison. Perhaps Ali was the only one left. I wondered if there’d be anyone after.

This post has been updated with additional pieces.