Dave Hannigan: Writing about Ali is like entering a rabbit hole
Such is wealth of material you never know what gems the journey has in store
Muhammad Ali, a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, takes on Trevor Berbick in his last ever fight on December 11th, 1981 in the Bahamas. Berbick won the fight in a ten-round unanimous decision. Photograph: Focus on Sport/Getty Images
A couple of years back, I asked a roomful of college freshmen and women to name the world’s most famous living Muslim. “Barack Obama! ” stage-whispered one wag.
“Osama Bin Laden, ” shouted another.
Eventually, after some conflabbing and perhaps even surreptitious Googling, somebody offered Muhammad Ali. “Oh yeah,” piped up a voice, suddenly feigning knowledge of the subject. “He’s that boxer who bit the other boxer on the ear.”
A few days before Ali died, I signed off on the proofs of Drama in the Bahamas – Muhammad Ali’s Last Fight, a book about his final bout against Trevor Berbick in December, 1981. It was the culmination of 15 months work. When people asked me why devote so much time to a long-forgotten entry on the most storied resume in sport, I’d reel off the above anecdote. Two generations have come of age since he fought his last, somebody has to educate these millennials about Ali’s wider cultural significance.
Of course, that reasoning rings a little hollow. If you type Muhammad Ali into Amazon, there are almost 17,000 titles about him or in which he is heavily featured. That’s way too many books even for the greatest. Since perhaps a dozen of them are also among the finest non-fiction works available, the canon is already rich enough for anybody seeking enlightenment about why he still matters.
Spreading the gospel
In truth, my justification for adding to the slush pile was way more selfish than spreading the gospel or simply telling what I think is a fascinating untold story about the final moments of his fistic career. I also wanted to immerse myself in the world of Ali because, for a writer, there is no more enjoyable place to spend time.
I know this because I’ve been there before. In 2001, I wrote a book about Ali’s fight in Croke Park and the magical week in Dublin surrounding that bout. I have never had more fun on professional endeavour. Until now.
See, when you call somebody up to talk about their experience with Ali, whether fleeting or long-standing, you are asking them to revisit one of the genuinely epic moments from their own life.
When you delve into the newspaper archives, snaffle fraying old magazines on eBay and sift through the literature, you are exposing yourself to the very finest writing and photography. Which can be good and bad. The difficulty when trying to recreate the story of the Berbick fight is that Hugh Mcllvaney’s contemporary report on the contest for the Observer is near enough a work of journalistic art.
YouTube offers other dangers. You might set off on a quest to find evidence of Ali slurring his words in a 1981 television appearance and suddenly you are knee-deep in a demented episode of Parkinson with Freddie Starr using the boxer as his comic foil. Tremendously entertaining but before you know it you are off down the rabbit hole, half the night is gone and there isn’t a sentence in the house washed.
The joy of the journey is you never know where the research will take you. One minute he’s in Las Vegas fighting to keep his boxing license, the next he’s in London promoting Freedom Road an NBC television movie in which he plays an ex-slave turned US senator. He pops up in Portland talking to a freeze-dried food company about initiatives to feed the hungry in the Third World, then he’s namechecking the hunger strikers in the Maze Prison as an inspiration at a Chicago press conference.
Running my finger along the index, among the entries are Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Leonid Breshnev, Deng Xiaoping, John Travolta, Muammar Gaddafi, Liam Neeson, Eddie Murphy and Bobby Womack. When you are charged with knitting together a narrative with such a rich cast of characters, you gain heightened appreciation of the term passion project.
Not to mention you stumble upon quotes that remind you of his enduring relevance. The same week Donald Trump was ludicrously claiming there were no great Muslim athletes, I found Ali trying to sell the Berbick bout as a sporting jihad: “I am a warrior of Islam. This is Holy War. I am fighting for Allah. Look what I’ve accomplished. People don’t think twice about Muslim names. Look at all the ballplayers with Muslim names.”
In the moments after losing to Berbick, Ali was stretched on a locker-room table looking every aching inch a man a few weeks shy of 40. Then a journalist asked if in retirement he might become a goodwill ambassador to improve relations between Gaddafi and the White House.
Tears in their eyes
Who else in the waning minutes of his sporting life could spark a geo-political discussion about concerns Libya was bent on assassinating Reagan? One more bizarre measure of the man. One more illustration of why many had tears in their eyes watching him suffer unnecessarily in the ring the night the curtain finally, thankfully, belatedly, came down in the Caribbean.
Between this book and The Big Fight, I’ve now spent 30 months of my career researching and writing about Ali. Thirty months and not a single minute of it ever felt like work.