New Muhammad Ali Biography Reveals A Flawed Rebel Who Loved Attention | KERA News

New Muhammad Ali Biography Reveals A Flawed Rebel Who Loved Attention

Oct 4, 2017

Decades before NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police treatment of African-Americans, boxer Muhammad Ali roiled white America with his 1967 resistance to the Vietnam War draft.

The boxer had converted to the Nation of Islam a few years earlier, and he explained his resistance to the war by saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."

Ali's resistance to the draft resulted in his being stripped of his heavyweight title, banned from boxing and charged with evasion. (Though he avoided jail time, it would be more than three years before he returned to the ring.) Biographer Jonathan Eig says Ali's protest was unprecedented in those days.

"It was unimaginable for most black athletes to stand up that way and say, ... 'I'm going to play by my rules and to criticize presidents and to criticize the war and to call all of white America a fraud,'" Eig says. "That was radical."

Eig spent four years learning about Ali by interviewing the late boxer's associates and former wives, and poring over previously unreleased FBI and Justice Department files. His new book, Ali: A Life, chronicles Ali's remarkable boxing career, his role as a social critic and his colorful and often chaotic personal life.

Eig says that although Ali was attacked for his political views at the time, attitudes towards the boxer shifted as American support for the war waned.

"To see this guy who goes from being the most hated man in the world to being the most beloved in many ways, to being seen as this kind of saint is fascinating," Eig says. "And I don't think we do Ali any good by treating him as a saint. He was a human being and he was deeply flawed, but I think the reason people look to him this way is because he had the spirit of a rebel. He was willing to fight for what he believed in."


Interview Highlights

On how Ali announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam

Immediately after the fight [with Sonny Liston], he makes this very bold pronouncement that really shocks everybody: He admits that he's a member of the Nation of Islam and that he's not going to accept this Christianity anymore. This was a slave religion that was forced on him and his people during slavery, and he was free to choose whatever he wanted.

And he makes this important declaration of independence really. He says, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I don't have to say what you want me to say. I don't have to do what you want me to do. I'm free to be who I am."

That's really, I think, the defining moment in Ali's career. It's his coming out, and at a time when African-Americans were expected to be subservient in American culture. For him to say, "I can do what I want," was radical.

On Ali's signature trash talking

It was fascinating because he was a brilliant marketing guy. He understood that he was going to get a fight with Sonny Liston sooner than anybody else, before he was really qualified based on his boxing record, because he was making so much noise.

His first nickname was "The Louisville Lip," and it was meant with disdain that he was a bad sport. He was behaving like a child. He was modeling his behavior, in part, on Gorgeous George, the wrestler who came into the ring with his hair in curlers. He was trying to make the crowd angry. ...

He ends up becoming even more hated for more legitimate reasons, and then he becomes the most beloved man in the history of boxing. So that is fascinating to see how well he manipulated that.

On how Ali trash talked his black opponents more than his white opponents

Ali saw one of his great goals in life to be the uplift of African-American people, to bring black pride out, to show people that they could say they were the greatest, even when America said they were second-class citizens. And yet, at the same time, he is undercutting these other strong, proud African-American men and using the most racist images to do so. So that was Ali: There were no easy answers. He was very complicated in these ways, and he didn't really care about the contradictions. ...

He showed more respect for his white opponents. It's almost like it was this line he didn't want to cross, that calling these white opponents names, that belittling them was more complicated for him. It was dangerous. He didn't want to do it. But calling out other black men — some people I talked to said they thought he had his own sense of inferiority.

[Boxer] Joe Frazier was a tough kid who came up out of poverty. [Boxer] George Foreman grew up in the ghetto, dirt poor. Ali was middle class. He didn't fit in with the world of a lot of other boxers. ... Ali wasn't of that demographic, so some people have speculated that he was acting out this way to prove he was as bad and as black as anybody else.

On the possible connection between Ali's dyslexia and his ability to dodge punches

Everybody kind of wondered why Ali had this miraculous ability to dodge a punch, and some doctors I talked to said it might've actually been connected to his dyslexia, that when you're dyslexic your brain works differently. When you learn to read, your brain gets re-wired so that you focus really carefully on one thing, you can concentrate really hard on those letters on the page.

But when you never learn to read, your brain remains more accessible to outside forces. You can maybe hear and understand two conversations at one time, because your brain hasn't been re-wired by the process of learning to read.

Ali, because he learned to read very late and never really very well, may have been better at picking up visual clues than most people. He may have been able to see little signs in his opponent's body that suggested when and where the punch was going to come. It's a fascinating theory, I think.

On Ali's comeback in the 1970s, after being hated and having his heavyweight title stripped because of draft evasion

When he comes back from his exile, first of all, the war is wildly unpopular. And so, when he began his protest, there was still very strong support for the war in Vietnam. But by 1971, people can say, "Wow, Ali was right. That war has been a disaster. No wonder he didn't want to fight over there."

He also has suffered. He's given up three and a half years of his career and millions of dollars, and then he comes back to the ring and he fights Joe Frazier and he gets whooped. ... This is one of the greatest and most vicious fights in boxing history and Ali loses, but he stays on his feet. He survives this thing. I think then you begin to see him as a martyr, as a hero, and somebody who gets knocked down and keeps coming back.

Sam Briger and Therese Madden produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Muhammad Ali may be the most famous American athlete ever. His life is the subject of books, documentaries and feature films. But our guest, writer Jonathan Eig, says he was surprised to discover that no one had ever done a complete, unauthorized biography. Eig spent four years researching Ali's life, speaking with his three surviving wives, his managers and hundreds of others. He reviewed previously unreleased FBI and Justice Department files and found audiotaped interviews from the 1960s.

Eig's new book is a compelling story of Ali's remarkable boxing career, his role as a draft resister, social critic and a symbol of African-American aspirations, his long association with the Nation of Islam and his colorful and often chaotic personal life. Jonathan Eig has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He's the author of books about Al Capone, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and the creation of the birth control pill. He spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his new book, "Ali: A Life."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Jonathan Eig, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know Muhammad Ali - did he have big ambitions as a kid?

JONATHAN EIG: The biggest. You know, he started saying - when he was 12, the very first time he stepped into a boxing ring, he started saying, I'm going to be the greatest boxer of all time; I'm going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. You know, it's preposterous he didn't, first of all, know if he was going to grow big enough to be a heavyweight. He absolutely believed it.

He would sit in class, dreaming of hearing his accomplishments announced on the loudspeaker. He would doodle pictures of himself - you know, Golden Gloves, robe. He just had this vision that that's what he was going to do. And he told everybody from the earliest possible age. This was not something that he cooked up when he became, you know, the Muhammad Ali. He always believed in himself somehow.

DAVIES: And Cadillacs and big houses were part of the dream, too.

EIG: (Laughter) Yeah, he talked all the time about these mansions he was going to build and how many Cadillacs he was going to own. And he always talked about building housing projects and buying a house and living above the housing project. He had these very specific dreams. And before certain fights, it would be a certain car that if I win this fight, I'm going to be able to buy that tomato-red Cadillac with the white upholstered seats.

You know, he was definitely interested in the fame and the money and just this image that he had of what it would take - what it would be like to be a successful, wealthy man. And, you know, you've got to remember. This is a, you know, a black kid growing up in Jim Crow America who's being told by society, by the law that he is inferior. So this is a - you know, a dream of even greater magnitude than you can imagine today.

DAVIES: How did he get into boxing?

EIG: It's a great story. It's one of those legends that actually turns out to be true, which is (laughter) always kind of a pleasant surprise for me. He was riding his bicycle one day. He had a brand new $50 Schwinn. And you know, for his family - his dad, you know, was a sign painter, made some - made decent money but wasn't well off by any stretch. So he had this $50 Schwinn that he shared with his brother, and they were riding it together, one on the handlebars, one down - one on the seat. They went downtown with a couple of other friends. It started to rain, so they ducked into this building. And when they came back out, the bike was gone and stolen.

So Ali was furious. He was Cassius Clay at that point. But he was furious. He went looking for the kids who stole his bike. Then he went looking for a police officer to report the crime. And he found a police officer, a guy named Joe Martin, working in the basement of the Columbia auditorium. And in the basement, Joe Martin was giving a boxing clinic, teaching kids how to box. And Ali was just immediately entranced. He almost forgot about his bike.

He got so excited seeing the boxing gym, smelling the sweat and maybe most importantly seeing black kids and white kids in the ring together. This was a black kid hitting a white kid in the face. You were not supposed to do that in any other part of America. But the boxing ring - it was OK. And Ali became just fascinated and went back to that gym day after day and became the hardest worker in Joe Martin's gym.

DAVIES: Right. And so he got good at it. He developed his own style. He started competing in amateur bouts and the Golden Gloves. What was his style? What was distinctive about his approach?

EIG: His style was very unusual. He was a big, long-limbed kid, but he fought like a featherweight or a middleweight at least. He was very quick, almost impossibly quick. And his technique was lousy. He never learned to keep his hands up. He never learned to duck punches because he thought he was so quick. He didn't need to. He could just - quick - move his head out of the way at the last second before a punch arrived. And it was completely instinctive. Nobody taught him to box that way. In fact, Joe Martin tried to teach him not to box that way. But it worked for him because his talents were so superb.

And in addition to being quick, he had this left jab that looked like it wasn't hurting. You know, he just flicked that left jab out lightning fast. And man, that thing would start to wear you down after a while. Big guys - much bigger guys would get in the ring with him and - saying, this guy can hurt me; he's just this long-limbed, you know, speedster, but he's - he can't possibly hurt me. But after a round or two, that jab started to wear out even the big guys.

DAVIES: Right. And the jab comes - it's the initiating blow just straight out, and it can hurt.

EIG: That's right. And you can use it for defense, and you can keep your man away for a long time. And that allowed him to measure his punches, too. That allowed him to know where his opponent was and keep him where he wanted. But it wasn't just defense. That thing hurt after a while. And I learned something interesting, too, about this. You know, everybody kind of wondered why Ali was - had this miraculous ability to dodge a punch. And some doctors I talked to said that it might have actually been connected to his dyslexia, that when you're dyslexic, your brain works differently.

When you learn to read, your brain gets rewired so that you focus really carefully on one thing. You can concentrate really hard on those letters on the page. But when you never learn to read, your brain remains more accessible to outside forces. You can maybe hear and understand two conversations at one time because your brain hasn't been rewired by the process of learning to read.

And Ali, because he learned to read very late and never really very well, may have been better at picking up visual clues than most people. He may have been able to see little signs in the - in his opponent's body that suggested when and where the punch was going to come. And it's a fascinating theory I think.

DAVIES: He wins the gold medal in the Olympics in Rome in 1960 - right? - and then it comes back a bit of a celebrity, right? How does he get together the financing for a career? I mean, this is not a kid who had any money.

EIG: After the Olympics, what happened to Ali is really unusual and maybe unique in the history of boxing to that point. These very wealthy, white businessmen from Louisville - they called themselves the Louisville Sponsoring Group - decided basically to finance and manage Ali's career for him, to keep him away from the dangerous elements that were in boxing at the time. They didn't want him to fall into the hands of some of the people who are associated with the Mafia, which was really a, you know, prevalent force in the boxing world.

And these guys had so much money. They weren't in it for themselves. They thought they might make a little profit on it if Ali's career went well, but they knew that most boxers did not rise to the championship. They were doing it as kind of a civic deed. They thought that this was good for the community, that it was good for one of their own to help this kid from the West End of Louisville to become - you know, to go as far as he could with this boxing thing. He had a gold medal already, so there was certainly some promise.

And these guys put Ali on a salary, which was completely unheard of for boxing. He was guaranteed money every month, every year regardless of how well he boxed. They managed his fights. They chose the fights for him. They hired a trainer for him. They paid all his expenses, all of his food and lodging bills. It was really an extraordinary deal and a great relationship that Ali treasured for years.

DAVIES: So he does well, begins winning professional fights. And then at some point, another force in his life emerges, and that's the Nation of Islam. Talk a bit about his perceptions of race and how - you know, how the Nation of Islam appealed to him.

EIG: Well, Ali was the same age as Emmett Till. And everybody knew what had happened to Emmett Till for speaking back, giving sass to a white woman. He was, you know, killed brutally, and the killers got away with it. And Ali's father was a race man. He was a Garvey, I do believe, that black people were never going to get a fair deal in this country. They just have to go back to Africa if they were ever going to have a fair shake.

And Ali grew up steeped in that kind of thinking and talking. And when he heard about the Nation of Islam, which was this little known group at the time but was a growing force, especially in American ghettos and American prisons where they did a lot of outreach work, here was a group saying that - a little bit like what his father had been saying - that America was never going to be fair to African-Americans, that their only hope was to form their own powerful organization, to start their own businesses and eventually to force America to give them their own territory. And Ali heard about this.

I found the letter that he wrote when he first explained why he became a Muslim, why he got interested in nation of Islam. And it wasn't really about the religion. It was about the cultural issues. He bought into this. He loved this idea that black people could take responsibility for their own lives. And I think this, for somebody who is boxing, who is having the opportunity to build his own life, to - through discipline, through training, hard work and getting the ability to be treated as an equal at least in the boxing ring, the Nation of Islam really struck a chord with him.

DAVIES: The leader of course was Elijah Muhammad. But a rising star within the Nation of Islam was Malcolm X, who, you know, wrote that famous autobiography, later had a falling out with the leadership of the Nation of Islam and was murdered. He became close to Ali. What was their relationship like?

EIG: Ali and Malcolm X were like little brother and big brother. Malcolm was this very charismatic, brilliant man who had, you know, also come from humble beginnings and taught himself and very much lived the ethos of the Nation of Islam when it came to self-improvement. And he was also a big boxing fan. So he loved hanging around Ali. Ali was just this unbelievable personality. Everybody just loved being in his presence. One of his first girlfriends told me that you - it was impossible not to have fun. It was impossible to be in a bad mood when you were in the room with Ali. So he and Malcolm really hit it off.

And I think Malcolm became a real mentor to him and taught him that the philosophy that Elijah Muhammad was teaching was a really powerful one and that it - that Ali could go into the ring believing that he had Allah on his side, that he was - had a calling, that he was doing something much bigger than boxing here, that he had an opportunity to really change the world if he was successful.

DAVIES: Jonathan Eig has a new biography of Muhammad Ali. It's called "Ali: A Life." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig. He has a new biography of Muhammad Ali. It's called "Ali: A Life."

So a pivotal episode in Muhammad Ali's career were his two fights with Sonny Liston in 1964 and 1965. I remember this as a kid. Tell us first about Sonny Liston.

EIG: Sonny Liston was - one writer called him the nightmare in white America's closet, that he was this big, frightening guy who just knocked his opponents out. And he was kind of an ogre. He beat up policemen. He, you know, had a criminal record. He was not the heavyweight champ that Joe Lewis had been. Joe Lewis was this symbol of pride that even white people could take as a hero.

But Sonny Liston was just a bad guy in the view of the American public. And he was seen as unbeatable. He was just too big and too strong, and he had - he'd knocked out his last few opponents in just a matter of seconds. So the strong opinion among the media and among boxing fans was that this kid, Cassius Clay, this little, quick-moving fighter had no chance getting in the ring against Sonny Liston. And the only question was whether he was going to be knocked out or killed.

DAVIES: The interesting thing is that by the time they had that first fight - and I didn't realize this until I read your book - then, Cassius Clay was a huge celebrity already. He had been on the cover of Time. He'd been on "The Johnny Carson Show." I mean, he - and he demanded a fight with Sonny Liston. And he spent a lot of time building up to the fight, talking trash. And I thought we would listen to a little bit of tape from back in 1964. This is in the buildup to the fight, and Cassius Clay, then has some guys in his retinue. We'll hear them in there. And this begins with a question from a reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Cassius, can I ask you how you're feeling now at this point in your training?

MUHAMMAD ALI: I'm feeling great. I'm ready to war right now.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, when you say you're ready to go to war right now...

ALI: If I see that bear on the street, I'll beat him before the fight.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You'd actually take him on before the fight.

ALI: Beat him like I'm his daddy.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I saw Sonny Liston a few days ago, Cassius.

ALI: Ain't he ugly?

(LAUGHTER)

ALI: He's too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, he told me to bet my life that you wouldn't go three rounds.

ALI: Well, if you want to lose your money, then bet on Sonny.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Oh, may I ask you...

ALI: ...Because I'll never lose a fight. It's impossible. Tell him. It's impossible.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Never lost a fight in your life.

ALI: Ask any of my fans when was the last time they lost. I'm too fast.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Champion from the crib.

ALI: I'm the king...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: King of the ring.

ALI: ...Born the champ.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Born a champ from the crib.

ALI: I'm not only a fighter. I'm a poet. I'm a prophet. I'm the resurrector. I'm the savior of the boxing world. If it wasn't for me, the game would be dead.

DAVIES: One of a kind at an early age.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Cassius Clay before his fight with Sonny Liston. You know, this practice of his, berating and humiliating opponents, remained a trademark to the end of his career. How much of this was real, and how much of it was promotional shtick?

EIG: Somebody once asked him that, and he said 70 percent.

(LAUGHTER)

EIG: He had a number in his mind. And I thought it...

DAVIES: Seventy percent is which, the shtick?

EIG: Seventy percent was real, he said. But it was fascinating because he was a brilliant marketing guy. He understood that he was going to get a fight with Sonny Liston sooner than anybody else, before he was really qualified based on his boxing record because he was making so much noise.

His first nickname was The Louisville Lip, and it was meant in - with disdain, that he was a bad sport. He was behaving like a child. He was modeling his behavior in part on Gorgeous George the wrestler, who, you know, came into the ring with his hair in curlers, who was just trying to make the crowd angry. And Ali saw Gorgeous George and said, oh, that's a good idea.

DAVIES: It was good business to be hated, in other words.

EIG: It was brilliant. And he ends up becoming even more hated for more legitimate reasons, and then he becomes the most beloved man in the history of boxing. So it - you know, that is fascinating to see - how much and see how well he manipulated that.

DAVIES: Well, you know, I always felt that this berating of opponents was just a terrible, terrible example to set for young athletes. And I know boxing is different and part of it - part of the way you build up a fight is by this kind of thing. But he really took it to extremes. And you're right about this. I mean, later on, for example, when he was going to fight George Foreman in Zaire, in Africa, this was really troubling, some of the stuff. Remind us what he said about Foreman.

EIG: Well, he called Foreman a mummy and said he was too stupid to be heavyweight champ. And the same thing with Joe Frazier - he called him a gorilla. So he would make these very - and Uncle Tom. He called several of his opponents Uncle Toms.

DAVIES: He called George Foreman a white flag-waving MFer (ph).

EIG: That's right, a white flag-waving expletive. And you know, it's - the really puzzling thing about it is that Ali saw one of his great goals in life to be the uplift of African-American people, that - to bring black pride out, to show people that they could say they were the greatest even when America said they were second-class citizens.

And yet at the same time, he is undercutting these other strong, proud African-American men and using the most racist images to do so. So that was Ali, you know? There was - there were no easy answers. He was very complicated in these ways, and he didn't really care about the contradictions.

DAVIES: Yeah, and some of these opponents admired him until he worked out on them verbally like that. Was he tougher verbally on black opponents than white ones?

EIG: That's another one of the great puzzles. He absolutely was. He showed more respect for his white opponents. It's almost like he felt like there was this line he didn't want to cross, that calling these white opponents names, that belittling them was more complicated for him. It was dangerous. He didn't want to do it. But calling out other black men - maybe, you know, he had his - some of the people I talked to said they thought he had his own sense of inferiority.

I mean Joe Frazier was a tough kid who came up out of poverty. George Foreman grew up in the ghetto dirt poor. Ali was middle-class. He didn't fit in with the world of a lot of other boxers. Boxing was a real - not just working-class. I mean a lot of poor kids got into boxing, and Ali wasn't of that demographic. So some people have speculated that he was acting out this way to prove he was as bad and as black as anybody else because he came from a more working-class community.

DAVIES: Did he ever come to regret this?

EIG: You know, he apologized later to Joe Frazier, and Joe Frazier was really hurt by this. Joe Frazier's kids were getting taunted at school because their dad was an Uncle Tom. And it was really hurtful. But Ali never really - and he did apologize, but I - and I think he regretted it. But he didn't show much remorse (laughter) over the years, not until very late.

DAVIES: So in 1964, as this huge showdown approaches, Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion, huge favorite in the fight and Cassius Clay promising to knock him out - Clay had become closer to the Nation of Islam. How well-known was this, and how did it affect the promotion of the fight?

EIG: There were rumors all over the place by the time of the fight that Ali was about to join this group that Americans - that white Americans perceived as a terrorist organization. And the FBI was already keeping tabs on him. The FBI was already using Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, as an informant to find out who was coming around.

So Ali wasn't talking about it. They asked him not to talk about it. They asked Malcolm X to leave Miami - the promoters of the fight - because they felt like it was bad for business, that it was hurting ticket sales, that nobody really knew who to root for anymore because Sonny Liston is this ogre, and now Ali, the fresh, young face - he might be more hated than Sonny Liston because of his association with the Nation of Islam and his bad sportsmanship and his constant yapping. So they kept it pretty quiet or tried to anyway at least until the fight could get over with.

DAVIES: Right. So the fight finally comes, Liston the huge favorite. What happens?

EIG: You know, you see it from the very first round. Liston comes out, and he's looking for that quick knockout, and he can't find Ali. Ali's just dancing so fast. And suddenly you realize that not only is Ali fast, but he's actually bigger than Sonny Liston. And he - after he - he lets Liston swing a few times and miss.

He starts poking that jab at Liston, and Liston can't get out of the way. And then he starts doubling up with these combinations, and Liston's not getting out of the way. Every punch is hitting. And you see this. By the end of the first round, everybody says, oh, my God, we were wrong. This kid can fight, and Liston has nothing he can do about it.

DAVIES: And he fails to answer the bell in the seventh round, so I guess that's a technical knockout - huge upset.

EIG: Right, yeah. Ali just wore him out. And later Liston would say that he hurt his shoulder, that his shoulder was strained or separated. But you know, he's throwing a ton of jabs from that same - with that same shoulder right before he quits. I think he was just defeated, that emotionally and psychologically, he knew there was no way he was going to beat this kid.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Jonathan Eig, author of a new biography of Muhammad Ali called "Ali: A Life." After we take a short break, they'll talk about Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam and how taking so many punches affected his brain. And linguist Geoff Nunberg will talk about the hippy words that are still in use 50 years after the summer of love. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "DR. JACKLE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Jonathan Eig, the author of a new biography of Muhammad Ali called "Ali: A Life." When we left off, they were talking about the 1964 fight in which 22-year-old Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston and became the world heavyweight champion.

DAVIES: Soon after this, Cassius Clay no longer is Cassius Clay. Where did his new name, Muhammad Ali, come from?

EIG: Well, you know, immediately after the fight, he makes this very bold pronouncement that really shocks everybody. He admits he's a member of the Nation of Islam and that he's not going to accept this - Christianity anymore. This was a slave religion that was forced on him and his people during slavery, and he was free to choose whatever he wanted. And he makes this important declaration of independence, really.

He says, I don't have to be what you want me to be. I don't have to say what you want me to say. I don't have to do what you want me to do. I'm free to be who I am. And that's really I think maybe the defining moment in Ali's career. It's his coming out. And at a time when African-Americans were expected to be subservient in American culture, for him to say, I can do what I want, was radical. And then joining the Nation of Islam was even more radical.

And then shortly afterward, he announces that he's changing his name to Cassius X. And as soon as he does that, Elijah Muhammad calls and says no, I've got a different name for you. I'm giving you a greater honor. I'm going to give you a new first and last name, which was only given to very important people within the organization. He says your new name will be Muhammad Ali.

DAVIES: Muhammad Ali faces a tough decision because his friend Malcolm X splits with Elijah Muhammad, who is the leader of the Nation of Islam. What did Muhammad Ali do in this circumstance?

EIG: You know, it was an important crossroads in Ali's life, but it was not a difficult decision for him in fact because he was so fiercely loyal to Elijah Muhammad that he would do anything for the messenger, as he called him. And when Elijah Muhammad broke with Malcolm X, Malcolm X had been in a long-running feud with Elijah Muhammad. He had been suspended from the Nation of Islam. He had accused Elijah Muhammad of having all these affairs with his secretaries and impregnating them.

And there were some who felt like Elijah Muhammad had suggested that it would be OK if Malcolm X were assassinated, that - but Ali did not struggle with this decision at all, and he was actually quite cold towards Malcolm and said that he thought Malcolm deserved to die before the assassination. So at one point, Malcolm's wife approached Ali and said, please help me do something. There have been attempts on Malcolm's life already, and Ali brushed her off.

DAVIES: So Muhammad Ali has a second fight with Sonny Liston, takes him out in one round. There's controversy about it. But he's then on top of the world. I mean, he is the heavyweight champion and a national celebrity. And he runs into a problem with his draft status. I mean, the Vietnam War was beginning to heat up. What happens to Ali with the draft board?

EIG: Ali is on top of the world. He's the heavyweight champ. He's making money very quickly. He's buying all the cars he wants. And life is looking good. You know, he's still wildly unpopular as a result of his association with the Nation of Islam. Reporters are refusing to call him Muhammad Ali. They almost all still refer to him as Cassius Clay as if he had no choice in his name. They were going to call him what they wanted to call him. And then he gets even more unpopular when he says he doesn't want to serve if he's drafted in Vietnam.

First he says he just doesn't want to go. And it's really interesting. I found a tape of Ali watching himself on TV. There's this great reporter named Jack Olsen from Sports Illustrated who just kept the tape recorder running for hours and hours, and his tapes are archived now. And you can listen - you can watch Ali - you can listen to Ali as he's watching himself on TV. And his initial comments are, I just don't want to go, you know? Send some other athletes over there. Send some football players. I'm making a lot of money right now, and the government's taken a lot of that money in taxes. And they can use my taxes to buy all the bomber jets they want and all the tanks they want, and can go over there and kill all the Vietnamese they want. Just don't send me. I don't want to go.

And then he starts to evolve on that position, and he says, well, I'm opposed to this because I'm treated like a second-class citizen in this country. Black people - why should we go fight for our country when we're treated like second-class citizens, and why should we go over there and kill some dark-skinned Asians when dark-skinned people here are suffering? And black people are dying in these hugely disproportionate numbers in the war. Why should I be a part of that? So now he's beginning to make it a political argument.

And then after a little more time goes by and he speaks to Elijah Muhammad about this, then he begins to say, well, it's also a religious issue, that I'm a conscientious objector because my faith says that we don't fight in wars - in earthly wars. So it's really interesting to see his position evolve. But no matter how it evolves, he just becomes more and more unpopular, more hated. I think he may be the most hated man in America at this point.

DAVIES: Right. He, in the end, is charged and convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison, which he appealed. Was he treated differently than other draft resisters, do you think?

EIG: I think he was treated differently. And you know, I uncovered FBI files on Ali that hadn't been seen before, and they show that the government was really frightened that if Ali succeeded in avoiding the draft, that it would send this terrible message to others that they could avoid it the same way, that the Nation of Islam's membership would surge, that every, you know, black person in America or certainly many of them would flock to the Nation of Islam because it would keep them out of Vietnam. And they were very worried about that.

DAVIES: And it really - it froze his career, right? I mean, his title was stripped. State boxing councils refused to let him compete. He was essentially on ice, right?

EIG: That's right. And that's another way in which he was treated differently. There's nothing that says that a convicted felon cannot box. There are plenty of convicted felons in the boxing ring. Most states allow them to box. So he should have been allowed to box while his case was on appeal. And he was not. He was denied a license. And he was stripped of his heavyweight crown. He gave up three and a half years of his prime career when he was at his peak as an athlete and his peak as a money earner because he was a political symbol, I think.

DAVIES: You know, you're right that in 1965, he was probably the most hated man in America or at least in white America. And then by the '70s, it all began to change. Why?

EIG: It's fascinating to see this happen. And you know, we forget sometimes that Ali was so deeply hated because the Ali of the '70s is very different. When he comes back from his exile, first of all, the war is wildly unpopular. And the - so the - when he began his protest, there was still a, you know, very strong support for the war in Vietnam. But by 1971, people can say, wow, Ali was right; that war has been a disaster. No wonder he didn't want to fight over there.

He also has suffered. He's given up three and a half years of his career and millions of dollars. And then he comes back to the ring. And he fights Joe Frazier, and he gets whooped. I mean, Frazier knocks him on his butt with his vicious left hook. Ali gets up. He keeps fighting. This is one of the greatest and most vicious fights in boxing history. And Ali loses, but he stays on his feet. He survives this thing.

And I think then you begin to see him as a martyr, as a hero, as somebody who gets knocked down and keeps coming back. And he's got to start earning his way back toward another shot at the heavyweight championship. And this is when you begin to see the public attitude changing. There's a - you can't deny some of your admiration for this guy's toughness.

DAVIES: He took enormous physical punishment over a very long career. When did people - I mean, writers, trainers - begin to notice changes in his speech and his reflexes?

EIG: Far earlier than I would have guessed. You know, I talked to Ferdie Pacheco, who was the fight doctor, the ring man in Ali's corner, and he said that he saw damage, permanent damage, after that first fight with Frazier, '71. I said, are you kidding me? He fought for 10 more years. Are you saying - I couldn't believe he was saying the first fight he saw permanent signs of brain damage, and he said, yes. And then Ali's parents started to complain about it.

You know, I can - I found newspaper clips where even in the mid-'70s they were saying, you know, I wish he would stop. You know, he's slurring his words. He's mumbling. You know, his parents were really concerned about him, even in the mid-'70s. His wife, by the late '70s, noticed that his thumb was trembling. So there was a lot of concern, and he kept fighting all those years.

DAVIES: Well - and he had a different attitude towards taking punches, even in training, right?

EIG: Well, something really fascinating happened to Ali as he got a little older and a little slower. He noticed that he could take a punch. He didn't have to take too many punches when he was young because he was so quick. But, you know, when he got up from that punch from Joe Frazier, that sent a message. That said this is a tough guy to knock out, and Ali realized, yeah, my chin is good. I'm not going down no matter how hard they hit me. So he began incorporating that into his fight strategy.

He would let opponents hit him until they got tired, and he would tell his sparring partners to practice hitting him in the head, and he would just keep his hands down. And he thought that if he got hit in the head enough he could build up resistance, like, you know, calluses. And, you know, obviously that was - that was a tragic choice. It helped him win a few fights, but it cost him in the long run.

DAVIES: Right, right. You don't - you don't build up calluses in the brain. That's not the way the science works.

EIG: No. You know, I worked with CompuBox, which is the boxing stats company, to count how many times Ali was punched over the course of his career. And I calculate that if you include the sparring sessions and his amateur years and everything else, it's probably about 200,000 shots he took. And that number just grows exponentially in the last half of his career because he's just letting his opponents hit him. And he's slowing down more and more. And it's terrible. And you can correlate that - I also worked with speech scientists to study Ali's speech rate, and he loses 26 percent of his speaking rate between 1970 and 1980 when he's still a, you know, pretty young man.

DAVIES: Jonathan Eig's new biography of Muhammad Ali is called "Ali: A Life." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE CRUSH SONG, "CRUSH DIE WELT PT. 2")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Jonathan Eig. He has a new biography of Muhammad Ali. It's called "Ali: A Life." You know, I want to tie up what happened with Muhammad Ali's case - draft evasion conviction. In the end, it was overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality, essentially, and this is a fascinating episode that you write about. It seems as if the court just decided they just weren't going to punish this guy after all this.

EIG: The case was fascinating, and it was a mess from the beginning. It probably never should have happened. But, yes, the Supreme Court basically - just after looking at it and deciding that that the prosecution was legitimate, that he was - the conviction was - would stand, they just decided that they really didn't want to do this, that they didn't want the publicity. They didn't want to be seen as picking on this guy, that it was just going to look bad, especially if they did it, you know, by simply refusing to hear the case, by affirming the lower court's ruling.

It would look like they were - like they were doing something sneaky or that they didn't have the courage to stand up and hear the case. So they decided to look for a way out, and they found a technicality. They found a way to drop the case and just reverse Ali's conviction without setting any precedent.

DAVIES: There are a lot of legendary fights that are in the book, you know, with Frazier, with Ken Norton, with George Foreman. And then as Ali aged, he just wouldn't quit. I mean, he got beat by a young Leon Spinks and then came back, and he retired and came back so many times. Even after he really didn't have the discipline to train well, he would fight lesser opponents. And this is a clip I wanted to play of some banter with the TV sportscaster Howard Cosell who had a long, interesting relationship with Ali. And this is a show where Cosell is ragging Ali about what poor condition he is in and the kinds of fighters that he's boxing. Ali speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALI: If you look at me and look at you, I look better than you, and you don't box, so what type shape do I have to be in? I win all my fights. The - it's - I will ask you this question.

HOWARD COSELL: Will you do me a favor? Stand up and take your jacket off. I want the public to see that belly.

ALI: Let me - let me ask you a question. Let me ask you a question. Now, let me ask you a question, just ask a question. Let's pretend this is my show for one minute. All right.

COSELL: It's a disaster already.

ALI: Would you say that when I fought - when I fought, say, all of the fellows that I've been fighting lately, would you say that they were in shape?

COSELL: Yeah, except for Mathis. He didn't look real good to me.

ALI: Well, how did he go 12 rounds with me?

COSELL: Because you weren't doing anything.

ALI: I wasn't doing nothing. You should've been in there. If I was hitting you...

COSELL: You were slow footed. The hand and foot speed gone. The trick - as your manager, Angelo Dundee, your trainer, sitting right there told me earlier, I don't know what we're going to do to get the lad serious.

ALI: Look, listen - look, Joe Frazier - I wasn't in shape enough for Frazier many of them say. I was off three years. But yet it was Joe Frazier who had to be under intensive care for one month. When I fought Mac Foster, I was 226, they say the heaviest of my career. Mac Foster, the other day, just got out of the hospital in Japan. They wouldn't let him leave the country. And everybody I'm fighting lately is ending up in the hospitals. I'm unscratched. I'm unmarked. I'm overweight. I'm fat. But yet I'm always winning and what - if I get in shape, it'll be a murder, wouldn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

COSELL: As a matter of fact, your record for knockouts - I mean, one-punch knockouts - is absolutely nonexistent. You lack the killer instinct.

ALI: Only one time...

COSELL: You no longer have the hand and the foot speed. You're overweight. You're not serious about your profession.

ALI: I'm not serious?

COSELL: And a decision is about to made by Angelo Dundee (unintelligible) to handle you.

DAVIES: And that is Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali - always interesting to listen to those two guys. But why did Ali continue to take all this punishment? You know, you're right about his last two fights with Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. They were just painful. I mean, it was sad. Why did he keep doing this to himself?

EIG: You know, after the George Foreman fight, Elijah Muhammad begged him to quit. And, you know, he always obeyed Elijah Muhammad in every other way, every other time. You know, he'd just beaten Foreman. He'd won the championship again. He fought in Africa. It was this great, you know, symbolic place to become the champion again, to beat the biggest, baddest man on Earth, George Foreman. But he couldn't quit. And he said - one of his managers told me, you know, he said they want to give me $3 million to fight these bums. You know, how am I going to turn that down? It's ridiculous.

I think it was almost entirely the money. He had a lot of alimony to pay. You know, he was divorced twice at that point. He was just about to marry his third wife. He had this huge entourage that counted on him for support. He had a very nice lifestyle with a lot of homes, and he just had burned through all his money. He had really no savings at that point even though he'd made, you know, tens of millions of dollars.

DAVIES: Last fight was in 1981 - right? - and he lived for - what? - three decades after that, did a lot of charity work, got the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. He really became one of the most beloved Americans ever. After doing all this research, why do you think he touched so many people so deeply?

EIG: You know, it's a great question, and I interviewed probably 500, 600 people for this book, and I asked a lot of them that question, people who knew him really well, because I got to meet him, but I didn't get to know him. And I didn't get to interview him. But this guy who goes from being the most hated man in the world to being the most beloved in many ways, to being seen as this kind of a saint is fascinating. And I don't think we do Ali any good by treating him as a saint. He was a human being and he was deeply flawed.

But I think the reason people look to him this way is because he had the spirit of a rebel. You know, he was willing to fight for what he believed in. And then when he got knocked down and when he got hit with this disease, when he started looking bad and shaking and stammering on TV, he wasn't afraid to let people see him that way. And that's, you know, another kind of courage that he showed. And I think people really began to, you know, embrace him as he became more of a victim, more of a martyr. And, you know, that's complicated in and of itself.

Do we only love our heroes when they're - when they're weak? Are we afraid to recognize Ali's greatness when he was at his nastiest and his toughest? But I think that, you know, people were just always - always felt this warmth toward him even when he was at his most outrageous because he said these things with this twinkle in his eye that said he just wanted to be loved all the time.

DAVIES: Well, Jonathan Eig, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

EIG: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Jonathan Eig spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Eig is the author of the new book "Ali: A Life." After we take a short break, our linguist Geoff Nunberg will consider how the language of the hippie era changed how we talk. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RARE EARTH SONG, "HEY BIG BROTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.