Book note: Muhammad Ali’s own story

THE GREATEST: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham (1975)

I happened to pick up this book at a free neighborhood book exchange.  It is the autobiography of Muhammed Ali, born Cassius Clay, then the world heavyweight boxing champion at the height of his success.  I never was a boxing fan, but I liked this book at lot.

One thing I got from it was an appreciation of the discipline and dedication required to be a boxing champion.  Another was an appreciation of what it means to live a life of integrity.

Ali was a polarizing figure because of his boasting and insults, because of his adherence to the Nation of Islam, and because he refused being drafted during the Vietnam Conflict.

He was well-respected as a boxer for beating physically stronger opponents through speed and agility, intensive training, tactical thinking and determination to win at all costs.  

He may or may not have been the greatest, but he was world champion for a longer period of time, and won more title bouts, than anyone except Joe Louis and the Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko, brother of the current champion.

In training and in the ring, Ali pushed himself to the limit of endurance.  He said he never started timing himself on running, hitting the punching bag, skipping rope or the like until he started to hurt.  He regarded a day in which he got through training feeling good as a day wasted.

After he was exhausted, he would enter the ring with sparring partners, who would be fresh.  This was to prepare himself for actual bouts, when he would be tired and in pain.  He was monk-like in the rigor of his training.  Of course, all the top boxers trained hard.

Boxers and trainers believed that avoiding sex was an important part of their training, he said.  Sexual intercourse leaves a man feeling mellow; the winning spirit comes from feeling angry and frustrated.

Aki’s little poems, taunting his opponents, were part of a calculated strategy.  It brought him publicity, and it made it harder for his targets to turn down his challenges.

He said he felt energized by the hostility of crowds.  The pain of defeat was that it caused him to be ignored. 

Born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali started training as an amateur boxer at age 12.  He won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division of the Summer Olympics in 1960 at age 18, and defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in 1964 at age 22.  

In 1967, he was stripped of his title as punishment for refusing to be drafted.  He sued and won a reversal of that decision in 1970, but he’d been out of action and out of training during his prime fighting years.  He lost the title to Joe Frazier in 1971, but won it back by defeating George Foreman in 1974.  He held on to the title, except for a brief interval, until 1978.

The book tells of his great respect for Joe Frazier, which seems to have been mutual.  The book includes a long transcript of a fascinating conversation they had.  Each was the one the other most wanted to defeat.

Ali fought Frazier twice more, in 1974 and 1975, right before and right after he regained the championship.  The last was a technical knock-out after 14 rounds; the fight was so punishing that Ali said he was considering retiring.  He probably would have been better off if he had.  He was 33, which is old for a boxer.


Ali is an example of what it means to be willing to pay a price for doing what you think was right.  

When he refused induction into the Army, he was offered a deal where he would never go into combat, but spend his enlistment doing exhibition matches at military bases.  He preferred to risk prison, and actually was in prison for a short time, among death row inmates.

He made no secret of his membership in the Nation of Islam, which taught, among other things, that white people were devils.   Later on, following in the footsteps of Malcolm X, he converted to a more mainstream version of Sunni Islam

This book makes Nation of Islam teachings seem benign and harmless.  According to Wikipedia, co-author Richard Durham was editor of Muhammad Speaks, the house organ of the Nation of Islam, and his manager, Herbert Muhammad, a son of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, signed off on the final version of the text.

Ali in 1967

So maybe they toned that part of the book down.  Or maybe there was a kinder, gentler side to NOI teachings than I was unaware of.  Or maybe Ali was one of those religious people who believes in what others see as a hateful religion, but takes the good from it and ignores the rest.

As for the book as a whole, it is like any autobiography.  It is an account of a person’s life as he sees himself.  It may not be as others see him.

There is no indication In the book that Ali was prejudiced against white people as individuals.  Some of this trainers were white, white celebrities hung out at his training camp, and he welcomed the praise of white liberals and radicals.  

The book includes the story of Ali’s encounter with Bertrand Russell, which ended with Ali telling Russell, “You’re not as stupid as you look.”  Ali later apologized, after learning who the distinguished philosopher was, and Russell took it in good spirit.

Ali was threatened by white racists throughout his boxing career.  HIs family and children also were threatened.  He had physical courage outside the ring, and also moral courage.

In 1960, after being honored by the mayor of Louisville for winning his Olympic gold medal, he and a friend stopped at a diner was refused service.  Ali refused to leave, and they were set upon and pursued by a white racist motorcycle gang.  They escaped by grabbing the leader, holding his own switchblade knife to his throat, and getting him to order his followers to disperse.  He said he threw his gold medal in the river.

Ali wrote that in 1970, soon after his return to boxing, he and his entourage came under sniper fire in quarters in an isolated estate in Atlanta. Their phone was cut off, except for incoming death threats.  They held out all night, partly because one of Ali’s trainers, contrary to orders, had a pistol and was able to return fire.  

The Atlanta police showed up at 5 a.m. and told him they had reports of a possible plot against his life, and they would offer protection.  Ali said nothing about what had transpired.  He didn’t want to inspire copycats.  He went on to win his fight.

Muhammud Ali was an examplar of the warrior virtues—pride, discipline, the ability to endure hardship and danger, and the refusal to ignore challenges or back down.

My first reaction after reading this book was that those virtues could have been put to better use than in the ring, but a lot of humble, downtrodden people saw Ali, like Joe Louis before him, as fighting for them. 


Muhammad Ali discusses his book, “The Greatest: My Own Story,”  in a radio interview with Studs Terkel.

The Greatest by Ishmael Reed for The New York Times.

Was Ali the Greatest Heavyweight? by Tom Donelson for Boxing Insider.

Muhammad Ali – Encyclopedia Britannica.

Muhammad Ali – Wikipedia.

Boxing career of Muhammad Ali – Wikipedia.

List of world heavyweight boxing champions – Wikipedia.

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One Response to “Book note: Muhammad Ali’s own story”

  1. Bill Harvey Says:

    The Greatest!

    He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

    On his way up Ali (then Cassius Clay) fought Doug Jones at the Baltimore Civic Center. In the pre-fight chatter (pretty much raised to a high art form by Ali) he said he’d knock Jones out in the 6th round. Jones mouthed off some so Ali said “OK, I’ll knock him out in the 4th round.”

    Jones was a pretty good fighter, ranked among the top 3 or 4 contenders for years, and he took Ali all the way to 10 rounds, but The Greatest won by decision.

    After the fight a reporter was needling him: “You said you were going to knock him out in the 4th. What happened?”

    Ali said, “What’s 6 and 4?”

    Bill Harvey

    Liked by 1 person

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