The most famous man in the world


MUHAMMAD ALI: His Life and Times. By Thomas Hauser, with the cooperation of Muhammad Ali. Simon & Schuster. 544 pages. $24.95.

HE WAS called the Greatest, the Louisville Lip, and the Heavyweight Clown Prince of the World.

He was also known as Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammad Ali. More than any other athlete in American culture, he rewrote the history books. He redefined his sport, of course, but so did Bobby Orr and Johnny Unitas, and no one mentions them in the same breath as Ali.

By the time this barely literate, three-time heavyweight champion left thestage, he was the most famous man in the world. A Black Muslim and draft resister, he became one of the leading political figures of his political time. It is impossible to tell the story of the '60s and '70s -- with its currents of racial discord, Vietnam strife, and culture as politics -- without giving Ali a role. In fact, a writer can do a pretty fair job capturing the era simply by telling the story of the People's Champ.

Thus Muhammad Ali has seen his share of biographers. Everyone from Norman Mailer to Jose Torres to Wilfred Sheed has taken cracks at the legend. It is into this maelstrom that Thomas Hauser has stepped with a new biography, written with the compliance of Ali himself. Through hundreds of interviews, Hauser has retold the life and times of Ali through the verbatim recollections of those who knew him.

From Joe Frazier to Andy Young to his numerous wives, this oral history of Ali strives mightily to leave no stone unturned. If you want to know the details of Ali's illness, or his marital problems, or what happened in the fights against Chuck Wepner or Jean-Pierre Coopman, Hauser's your man. There may never be as thorough a book on the former champion.

But the difficulty with such an approach is that it loses the proverbial forest for the trees. Ali, the historical figure, was more than the sum of his parts, or at least more than the recollections of his cronies and boxing acquaintances. In the long run, what punch Ali hit Sonny Liston with in Lewiston doesn't matter; his effect on black America does. Hauser never seems to recognize that with an Ali -- a figure we all know -- the real job is not to paint a portrait but to put a frame around the one we already have.

Part of the problem is the oral history technique itself, which involves quoting lengthy interviews. Hauser's book too often reads like a deposition transcript, or the transcription of a testimonial dinner which went on about three days too long. For better or worse, the book is exhaustive in the true sense of the word, the equivalent of reading the Warren Commission's 20-plus volumes of testimony rather than the report itself.

What's more, by relying almost solely on quotes, the author can never take a step back and look at Ali dispassionately with the skill, say, of a novelist. Why was this mostly playful and peaceful man drawn to a sport of violence? What was there in his background that might suggest he would play his role? How, exactly, did he change America? These are the kinds of questions anyone who has watched Ali has. Unfortunately, this hagiographic book doesn't answer them, except obliquely.

Still, the book is a good read because Hauser is an able interviewer who enjoyed his subject's confidence. That's no small feat when writing about a man who always opened up more to the camera and microphone than the notebook. If you were an Ali fan -- and there were many -- this biography may be nothing short of indispensable.

But with a figure this large and mythic, a simple non-fiction biography may never do. Like Huey Long, Muhammad Ali awaits an "All the King's Men" to do him justice. Until then, we'll have to get by on Hauser and the memories.

And, my Lord, what memories!

Steven Stark is a columnist in Boston.

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