Books: Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

(Photo / M. Evans)

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. The United States of America by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace largely focuses on the greatest heavyweight boxer in history’s impact outside of the ring. Originally published in 2000, the paperback version released this year corresponds to the airing of the recent HBO movie of the same name. 

Bingham is a long-time friend of Ali’s and his previous work includes a photographic history of the boxer. In this book, Bingham and Wallace take on the formidable task of assessing the facets of Ali’s resistance as a conscientious objector to induction into the US Army during the Vietnam War.

The timing of Ali's ascent as a boxer closely corresponded to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the early 1960's. Born as Cassius Clay in Louisville, the outspoken fighter first made known his membership in the Nation of Islam (which ultimately led to his conscientious objector appeal) in 1961.

The Nation of Islam's founding is attributed to W.D Fard, who tirelessly preached its doctrine during the Depression. Through his street corner platform he found an apt pupil in Elijah Poole, who later assumed the name Elijah Muhammad and greatly grew the Nation’s following through the strength of his convictions and personality. 

It is at the crossroads of the Nation’s belief of strict segregation with the integrative efforts of the Civil Rights Movement that Cassius Clay claimed the heavyweight crown by defeating Sonny Liston in February, 1964. Another of Elijah Muhammad’s followers, Malcolm X, is an early adviser to Ali, but X later becomes disenchanted with Elijah while Ali remains faithful to the Nation’s leader. 

In early 1965, after Malcom X had severed ties with the Nation of Islam, he was assassinated by the group’s members in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. It is during this period of religious in-fighting within the Nation of Islam and increased resistance to the Vietnam War that Ali is drafted into the army.

His resistance to the draft became a lightning rod for racism, as well as some genuine resentment over what appeared to be preferential treatment from the government due to his celebrity status. Bingham and Wallace do a worthy job revealing that Ali may have received special treatment after being drafted, but it was hardly of the preferential variety.

Others saw Ali’s resistance as evolving, but strongly premised on objections to fighting a war for a country that openly treated African-Americans as second class citizens. Critical to Ali's defense when brought to trial for resisting the draft was his developing opposition to all wars as a follower of Islam, and not specifically to fighting in Vietnam.

The authors firmly back the Champ as a man of genuine conviction, and to their credit they do so while telling the story with a largely even hand. They rightfully question Elijah Muhammad and the extent to which the Nation of Islam, along with a throng of other handlers, plundered the young Ali of millions in prize money. Malcolm X is, on the balance, presented as a man of significantly sturdier moral conviction than Elijah.

The book in the end does a fine job sifting through the witches' brew of issues surrounding Ali’s resistance: civil rights, war resistance, and religious freedom, among others. What are the defining characteristics of a religion that make it legitimate? The authors, without digressing from the book's tight chronological narrative, pose the question. And despite substantiating Ali's religious convictions as genuine don't shy away from revealing some of the more arcane beliefs of the Nation of Islam when it was founded.

The events in the book are distant enough that younger readers may not know the outcome of Ali’s case, which ultimately made it to the Supreme Court. Rather than convey it here, those with an interest would do well to pick up a copy of Wallace & Bingham's book. - TF

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