African American Studies Muhammad Ali
Charles Lemert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0127


Muhammad Ali (b. 1942–d. 2016) was a professional boxer who has been called the Greatest Boxer of all time and was named, by Time, Sport’s Illustrated, and Life magazines, the Greatest Athlete of the 20th century. He was brash enough after first winning the heavyweight box title in 1964, to shout then and thereafter, “I am the Greatest!” Shortly after defeating Sonny Liston, he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and as a member of the Nation of Islam he enjoyed a close personal friendship with Malcolm X. His most famous fight was in 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire, known as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” when he knocked out the heavily favored George Foreman. This win was significant for two reasons. First, it came after a prolonged absence from boxing when he was exiled from the sport for refusing to enter the draft for the American war in Vietnam, famously saying: “I Ain’t Got No Quarrel with Them Viet Cong.” Second, the fight in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo introduced him to African people, thus making Ali into a global race figure. He was in this moment, and for some years after, the most famous person in the world. He was not a writer, but he was an amazing oral poet who influenced hip hop music. Ali was able to compose plain verse in the moment. Some he wrote out before. Once, while speaking to the graduating class at Harvard University, students shouted for a poem. He answered spontaneously: “Me/We.” George Plimpton called this the shortest poem in literary history. Ali’s public persona was always associated with entertaining. His moniker “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee” was a near perfect figurative description of his boxing skills. He could in fact dance brilliantly about the ring to confuse opponents, but when he saw an opening, he could sting with lighting fast punches. In his last years after boxing, frail with Parkinson’s Syndrome, his Islamic faith inspired millions—especially when, his face frozen and arm trembling, he lit the Olympic Flame at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. At the same time, Ali was humble enough in the end to beg forgiveness for abandoning Malcolm X in 1964. Overall Muhammad Ali was many things at once. As a result, he has been studied in many books and other media. He was as much a cultural icon as an athlete.

General Overview

Books are the main resource for scholars. Ali himself did not write a book as such, except for a brief but moving memoir with his daughter, Ali and Ali 2004, and a long early memoir, Ali and Durham with Morrison 1975. Otherwise, there are good biographies of high intellectual merit, notably Remnick 2015 and Oates 1987. Montville 2018 focuses on key moments in Ali’s life and on his war protest, and Mailer 2013 on the fight in Kinshasa. Marqusee 1999 considers Ali in relation to the culture of the 1960s. The most current and widely praised biography is Eig 2018. Early 1998 is a collection of essays by literary notables. Oates 1987 astutely writes on boxing. These books are selected from among a seemingly endless list of books on Ali. They are selected, of course, for their quality but also because together they fill in biographical gaps that no single book could cover well enough.

  • Ali, Muhammad, and Hana Ali. The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

    Written with his daughter Hana, this is a charming memoir. Short but pithy chapters present Ali’s important emotional, religious, and political feelings and thoughts, including: “The Day I Met Islam” and “My Philosophy, On Boxing.” In the concluding section, “Troubled Times,” his political views are explicit, as in “Islam and September 11” and “Afghanistan.” Hana often contributes touchingly, as in “The Soul of a Butterfly” where tells of her father’s generosity to a stranger on a country road.

  • Ali, Muhammad, and Richard Durham, with Toni Morrison. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, My Own Story. New York: Random House, 1975.

    A biography of Ali’s early years—his Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, his winning the title by defeating Sonny Liston in 1964, his religious conversion, his refusal to fight in Vietnam, his exile from boxing from 1967 to 1971, after which the Supreme Court unanimously declared him an honest conscientious objector, and to the title fight with Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Hardly comprehensive, but the book is a vivid, therefore reliable source on Ali’s memories of his early life.

  • Early, Gerald. The Muhammad Ali Reader. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

    Indispensable for scholars. Offers thirty-three original essays by an array of writers—Jackie Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Ali himself, Gary Wills, Hunter S. Thompson, many more. Wole Soyinka offers a long prose poem that ends: “When we were kings, and lords of rhyme and pace / The enchantment is over, but the spell remains.” Each is edited from previously published sources. Early is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

  • Eig, Jonathan. Ali: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

    This book has been widely praised for its nuanced detail about Ali’s life. Joyce Carol Oates for example: “As Muhammad Ali’s life was an epic of a life so Ali: A Life is an epic of a biography.” The author displays knowledge of Ali and appreciates his special personal qualities, without pulling punches on his brash arrogance and more than a few other negative qualities. The best biography of Ali.

  • Hauser, Thomas. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

    This 1991 book remains an important biography made current by long quoted passages that make it a scholar’s source book. Hauser notes: “This book is not an attempt to mythologize Ali. It is an attempt to show him for what he is with good qualities and flaws.” This purpose is painfully true especially in Hauser’s account of Ali continuing to fight for money after being broken physically in the last Frazier fight in 1975.

  • Lemert, Charles. Muhammad Ali: Trickster in the Culture of Irony. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003.

    “Trickster in the cultural of irony” is a cultural argument about Ali’s persona. “I Don’t Have to Be What You Want Me to Be” tricks the image of the jokester by another deeper self—one who was a serious opponent of the war in Vietnam and in Kinshasa became the global Black man. One unusual feature of the book is its ten-page timeline of Ali’s biography set against major world events of the day.

  • Mailer, Norman. The Fight. New York: Random House, 2013.

    Norman Mailer can be a literary wise-guy, but this is the best book on the Ali-Foreman fight. Mailer presents the dark side against the bright side that is usually emphasized. He followed Ali from his training through many weeks in Zaire—a time extended because of Foreman’s facial cut. Mailer has arrestingly described Ali’s physical presence. “There is always a shock in seeing him again. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down.

  • Marqusee, Mike. Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. London: Verso, 1999.

    Though at times over the top (Ali as a Gatsby), this book is an interesting essay on Ali in respect to events and major figures of the 1960s. In its conclusion, for example, the comparison of Ali with Michael Jordan of the 1990s, as America’s greatest athlete, Marqusee puts Jordan down for his capitalistic greed. Ali is imperfect, yet Marqusee ends with: “That his example of moral witness, border crossing solidarity, belong not to sixties nostalgia, but to the common future of humanity.”

  • Montville, Leigh. Sting Like a Bee: Mohammad Ali vs The United States of America 1966–1971. New York: Anchor Books/Random House, 2018.

    A strong, if a bit too flowery, narrative of the history of Ali’s life and troubles from his first refusal of the draft in 1966 to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1971 to clear him on the basis of the sincerity of his conscientious objection. Begins with a sympathetic story of his funeral in Louisville and his growing up there. The best book on an important chapter in Ali’s life.

  • Oates, Joyce Carol. On Boxing. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 1987.

    Comprises three essays—“On Boxing,” “Mike Tyson,” “The Cruelest Sport.” The third attends more to Ali while remaining true to its titular topic, boxing itself. The Ali section is mostly an explication de texte of Hauser’s books. Sill it is filled with aperçus that only a justly famous writer can compose, as: “The secret of Ali’s success, and the secret of his tragedy: he can take a punch.”

  • Remnick, David. King of The World. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 2015.

    David Remnick’s book is elegant and clear, while focusing on Ali more than boxing. “Old Men by the Fire” touchingly describes his last years and cuts to the heart of Ali’s fall from grace in the terrible error of fighting too long. Remnick tells of Ali’s deep faith in Allah that caused him to confess his sin of abandoning Malcolm X. This quite easily is the best short book on Ali.

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