Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston during their fight in 1965
Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston during their fight in 1965 © Neil Leifer/Getty Images

Herman Melville, Gertrude Stein, Edward Gibbon, Thomas Malory, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, bel canto opera, French classical music, the myth of Sisyphus. To survive the first five paragraphs of “Ahab and Nemesis”, AJ Liebling’s most acclaimed essay, a reader needs a passing acquaintance with all of these. The wonder is not Liebling’s erudition. Star turns at the mid-20th century New Yorker, especially those reared among the eastern seaboard’s cognoscenti, were meant to know such things.

The wonder is the subject to which all this learning was put. “Ahab” is Archie Moore, a skilled but fading boxer up against Rocky Marciano, his unbeaten nemesis, for a world heavyweight title in 1955. Liebling was a gourmand and a war reporter decorated by the French state for his coverage of resistance and liberation. He had one of those squat, bulbous bodies that seem to serve as padding for the higher faculties of mind and palate.

At this point, it is customary to write something like: “It takes some feat to find a less probable devotee of the sweet science” but, really, it is no feat at all. Liebling was drawn to boxing, but so were Joyce Carol Oates and William Hazlitt, neither of whom is easily pictured doing high-speed pad work amid buckets of bloodied spit in a basement gym. George Bernard Shaw wrote a novel about the sport (Cashel Byron’s Profession, 1882). James Baldwin covered Floyd Patterson’s 1962 fight with Sonny Liston. Current New Yorker editor David Remnick published a book about Muhammad Ali (King of the World, 1999) in between lighter subjects such as Barack Obama and Russia. All but one or two of Norman Mailer’s novels cringe with inadequacy next to The Fight, his account of Ali’s 1974 showdown with George Foreman in Zaire. Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson: all thrived at the intersection of professionalised violence and literary journalism.

Before the ‘Fight of the Century’ with Joe Frazier in 1971
Before the ‘Fight of the Century’ with Joe Frazier in 1971 © John Shearer/The Life Picture Collection

The first rule of fight club is that you write about fight club, a lot. No sport has been chronicled in greater depth or quality than boxing. There is some famous baseball prose by Don DeLillo, among others. Cricket yielded a great book (CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary, 1963) and tennis a great essay (David Foster Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience”, 2006). Football has amassed something of a canon over the past 20 years but nothing commensurate with the game’s imperial presence in the world.

Boxing does not vie for the attention of writers with other sports, but is on another plane with war and romance. It is clear that just one exponent of ringcraft — Ali, nowadays forced by Parkinson’s disease to let others tell his story — has inspired a more distinguished bibliography than entire human pursuits. The waterfall of words continues to cascade: Davis Miller, whose previous works include The Tao of Muhammad Ali (1996), has chronicled his friendship with the afflicted icon in Approaching Ali, published next month, which is also when the author’s co-curated Ali exhibition, I Am The Greatest, opens at The O2 in London.

Less clear is exactly why, over every other pugilist, Ali remains the focus of so much literary talent. His claim as the greatest does not command unanimity within the sport. Sugar Ray Robinson tends to be the aficionado’s pick. Prewar fighters Joe Louis and Willie Pep (such a virtuoso of feints and lateral movement that he reputedly once won a round without attempting a punch) are in the conversation. True, Ali’s élan inside the ring lent itself to descriptive prose: it was a reminder, if outsiders needed it, that boxing is more technique than brawn, less about hitting than not getting hit. But Sugar Ray Leonard, Pernell Whitaker and the best of our time, Floyd Mayweather, were also luminous stylists.

It is not even clear that Ali lived the most dramatic life in boxing history. Digressions in the Remnick book reveal Liston (“who’d never gotten a favor out of life and never given one out”) to have the more horrifyingly irresistible story, one that weighs a few years of glory against many more of humiliation in a country that hated the fact it could produce someone so broken and so capable of breaking others. Ali has “lived the life of one hundred men”, as he keeps telling Miller. But Jack Johnson, Roberto Durán and Mike Tyson also charted the extremes of human experience.

Easy to forget, too, that boxing was already receding in American life by the time Ali arrived. It was before the second world war and immediately after it that the sport was truly central. As early as the 1950s, there was a wistful pang in Liebling’s writing as he gazed at ringside seats that would have been filled with dignitaries a decade or two earlier.

With author Davis Miller in 1992
With author Davis Miller in 1992 © Davis Miller

Still, Ali might be known to more people in the world than anyone of the past half-century and, whether as a symbol of black emancipation or sporting mastery or rock ’n’ roll charisma, he is a straightforward hero to many of them.

However, a close reading of the prose devoted to him suggests that writers are drawn to something different: not his heroism but nearly the opposite of that, his moral ambiguity. There has always been a difference between Ali as perceived by the multitudes and Ali as rendered by embedded scribes. They pick up on a cruel streak that spurred him to hound Liston as someone less than human and Frazier, a product of pre-civil rights South Carolina, as an “Uncle Tom”. Frazier’s ordeal at the hands of people who took their cue from Ali included death threats and the necessity of police protection for his family. It is tougher to read about than the most heinous slugfest inside a ring.

In the work of Hugh McIlvanney, Britain’s greatest living boxing writer, Ali is acknowledged as the “Alpha and Omega” (his aunt Coretta Clay’s phrase) but real affection is reserved for others, Frazier and the anti-sectarian Irishman Barry McGuigan among them. Mailer, happily wading into another race’s internal politics with all the restraint of a man who once made a gonzo bid for the New York mayoralty, goes even further in The Fight. Foreman emerges as gloweringly taciturn but honourable. Ali, by contrast, fails to dazzle Mailer with wit (“It is difficult to decide how much of the language is his own”) or authenticity (“Foreman could be mistaken for African long before Ali”). There are passages where it is hard to tell whether Ali has come to Zaire to fight Foreman or to impress Mailer.

Arm-wrestling Norman Mailer in 1965
Arm-wrestling Norman Mailer in 1965 © AP

Long-form writers deal in nuance, the teasing out of contradictions over thousands of words. Ali was the ideal muse. Other fighters were too monstrous (Liston, Tyson) or too vanilla (Patterson, Marciano), at least outwardly. Ali’s blend of the chivalric and the malevolent, charm and braggadocio, made for rich copy. For outsiders to the sport, his racial and religious consciousness, right down to the change of name from Cassius Clay after the first Liston fight, is what makes him interesting. But it is poorly understood. Writers find him magnetic precisely because he was never a saint.

The contrast with some of his heirs is telling. There is a Lennox Lewis-sized hole in boxing literature but it is a wholly explicable one once you understand what turns writers on. Lewis was perhaps the purest technician in the heavyweight division since Ali’s era. He won world titles and retired with a healthy body, mind and cash pile. Something about this purring machine riled writers, though, who only addressed him as a subject to bemoan his lack of thunder.

The kind interpretation is that boxing’s literati — people who could be writing about world affairs, art treasures, metaphysics — have high standards when it comes to valour in the ring and charisma outside it. The darker possibility is that they are privileged voyeurs. They flock to the sport for the same reason that a certain kind of foreign correspondent asks for the trickiest banana republic postings: it gives them access to poor, wild, dysfunctional humanity at minimal risk to themselves. The clinical serenity of a Lewis must be a terrible disappointment to them.

In a book that was decades in the construction, the journalist Christopher Booker argued that all stories in all literature conform to at least one of Seven Basic Plots. Ali’s life conforms to them all: Overcoming the Monster (Liston, Foreman), Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return (Zaire and then Manila, where he fought Frazier), Comedy (“I hospitalised a brick/I’m so mean I make medicine sick”), Tragedy (the withdrawal of his boxing licence during his peak years for resisting the Vietnam draft, his imprisonment by Parkinson’s) and Rebirth (his defeat of Foreman at the age of 32). Just as you wonder what Miller could possibly add to the Everest of prose, his new book gives you an intimate glimpse of Tragic Ali: a man of once-uncontainable animation now locked behind facial features that do not move “one-tenth of an inch”.

Ali fighting George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in Zaire in 1974
Ali fighting George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in Zaire in 1974 © Neil Leifer/Getty Images

It has become pat to say writers turn to Ali because his story offers the possibilities that only usually exist in fiction. If anything, that undersells him and overrates fiction. Novelists have total freedom, in theory, but their lived reality is more bounded than that. They cannot concoct a protagonist who has something of the epic about him without exposing their work to slurs of middlebrow-ness. It is somehow unliterary. Fiction is the art of encoding universal themes into characters flawed and accessible enough for anyone to recognise in themselves. To conjure a spectacular individual doing sensational things is for hacks and hysterics.

The Great American Novels dwell on small people. Augie March shambles picaresquely through Saul Bellow’s Chicago, stealing books for an education, being henpecked here and there. Philip Roth wrote about sexual neurotics and ostracised professors. John Updike defined his work as “giving the mundane its beautiful due”. His Rabbit series is a study in provincial marginalia. He left New York for a small town to get a better handle on quotidian life. Even Melville’s Captain Ahab is just an ageing whaler with a peg leg.

As an aesthetic convention, this ban on superstar protagonists in fiction makes sense. Where is the skill in making a plainly dramatic individual seem dramatic? But it must also create a huge unfulfilled desire among writers to let loose. These are the people most equipped to capture individual greatness — to make it sing — but their profession’s tastes and sensibilities deter them from doing so, which is why they end up cramming so much improbable meaning into characters you would not look twice at if they came to life and walked into your train carriage.

Ali is their escape. He is epic but real, so they can write about him. If Mailer had penned a novel about a poor Kentucky boy whose athletic prowess and personal radiance made him as world-famous as the sun, as politically sensational as any guerrilla, he would have been laughed out of his publisher’s office.

Ali was a gift to people who yearn to paint on the largest canvases. It is not that you could not make him up. It is that nobody would let you.

Janan Ganesh is the FT’s political columnist

‘Approaching Ali’ by Davis Miller (WW Norton) is published in the UK on March 1. The exhibition I Am the Greatest’ opens at the O2 Arena on March 4

Photographs: Neil Leifer/Getty Images; John Shearer/The Life Picture Collection; Davis Miller; AP

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