Review of Leigh Montville's "Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971"

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Luther Spoehr, an HNN reviewer and senior lecturer at Brown University, started teaching about the '60s in the '70s.

Comedian George Carlin had the best short take on the topic of this book.  Summing up in 1972, he noted that Ali “had an unusual job:  beating people up.”  But, he added, the “government wanted him to change jobs.  Government wanted him to kill people.  He said, ‘No, that’s where I draw the line.  I’ll beat ‘em up, but I don’t wanna kill ‘em.’  And the government said, ‘Well, if you won’t kill ‘em, we won’t let you bet ‘em up!  Ah, ha, ha, ha.’”

Of course, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, it was more complicated than that.  Leigh Montville, formerly of the Boston Globe and then Sports Illustrated, and now an accomplished sports biographer (Ted Williams, Babe Ruth—Evel Knievel!), provides a clear, detailed, highly readable tour of the complications that beset the former Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., after he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown, joined the Nation of Islam, and, as Muhammad Ali, confronted the Selective Service System and the war in Vietnam. 

When Ali took his new name after the first Liston fight, it was a risky move, to say the least.  The Vietnam War was just starting to be controversial, part of the civil right movement was just starting to advocate Black Power, and white Americans’ impressions of the Nation of Islam, to the extent that they had any, were probably shaped by a 1959 CBS documentary, “The Hate that Hate Produced.”  The title signals its critical stance.

Montville traces how the changing zeitgeist altered many people’s perceptions of Ali and helped to set him on the road to becoming a revered figure in many quarters, one whose dramatic appearance with the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta evoked a roar from the crowd that may still be echoing somewhere.  From 1966 through 1971, Montville rightly says, “Muhammad Ali was discussed as much as anyone who walked on the planet.  He was part of arguments about race, religion, politics, war, and peace.  Not to mention boxing.”

The murky, often sordid world of boxing supplied many of the complications in Ali’s life.  Ali was not only entangled with the government, but (at times more importantly) with the many dubious bureaucracies that that tried to control what was already a sport in sharp decline.  Besides the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Commission, and the World Boxing Organization, there were the various state commissions (especially New York’s), all of which could (and did) refuse to recognize or deny a license to the fighter.  When he said, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs,” they decided that they had a quarrel with him.

Meanwhile, Ali’s appeals for exemption from the draft, primarily on the grounds that he was a minister (a claim for which he had considerable evidence), wound their way through the court system.  His sincerity and authenticity impressed Judge Lawrence Grauman in 1966, but that was about as good as it got until his startling 1971 victory in the Supreme Court.  For three-and-a-half years he couldn’t earn money boxing, so he went on the college lecture circuit and tried other ventures, including a mercifully brief, unsuccessful acting (and singing) vehicle called “Buck White,” and a gimmicky, virtual “Super Fight” matchup with the retired Rocky Marciano, courtesy of a National Cash Register 315 computer.

Montville’s fine-grained narration of Ali’s travails is grounded partly in the enormous literature about him that has appeared over the years.  Montville’s own interviews with Ali’s former wife, Belinda (now Khalilah), add a lot, recapturing the personal struggles that went on relentlessly behind the scenes.  Ali was no saint.  He didn’t try to fight off women who were drawn to him, and, for all his wit and charm, he could be astonishingly cruel to his opponents, including Floyd Patterson (Ali prolonged their bout primarily to torture him) and, especially, Joe Frazier, whom he taunted endlessly as an “Uncle Tom” and worse.  Nor was he exactly a spokesman for liberal ideas about race and gender.  Despite his increasingly tense relations with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, he shared his outlook:  “No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind want white boys or white girls comin’ to their homes, schools, and churches to marry their black sons and daughter to produce little, pale half-white, green-eyed, blond-headed Negroes.”  As for women in general:  “Allah made men to look down on women and women to look up to men.”

Ali was always hip-deep in controversy, but the forthrightness of his stand against the draft, his relentless victimization by the boxing and government authorities, and changing public opinion about the war made him an increasingly sympathetic figure.  He moved away from the extremism of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  His personal charm—yes, one can certainly call it “charisma”—did the rest.  It is impossible to recapture all of that charisma in print.  His energy, wit, talent, and unpredictability were magnetic.  With Ali, there was almost always a twinkle in his eye—and his eye was always on his audience.  The boxer as comic poet:  “Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee.”  Predicting the round for his knockouts.  Threatening to put the glowering Sonny Liston into orbit, causing a “total eclipse of the Sonny” (a line that Belinda may well have supplied).   

By the 1960s, boxing--tawdry and bedeviled by stories of fixes, mob influence, and worse--had already been in decline for decades.  Ali made it matter to the public again. Since his days in the sun, it has resumed its inexorable and largely unlamented decline.  (Can you name the current heavyweight champion?  Didn’t think so.  Do you care?  Didn’t think so.  That’s probably for the best.)  By the early 1970s, Ali had transcended all of that. He was almost certainly the most famous person in the world and well on his way to becoming one of the most admired.  No longer the “Louisville Lip,” he was the “People’s Champion.” I don’t claim to have read everything in the Ali oeuvre, but I can say Montville’s book belongs on the same shelf with the likes of David Remnick’s superb King of the World (1998), Dave Kindred’s Sound and Fury (2006, about Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell), and Thomas Hauser’s collection of interviews, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (1992). 

There is one caveat:  Montville has not been especially well served by his copy editors.  One of the book’s great strengths is the way it embeds Ali in the turmoil of the ‘60s.  But the text has a few too many sloppy verbal slips.  How, for instance, does one turn the lyric from Hair, “When the moon is in the seventh house,” into “When the moon was in the Seventh Heaven”?  C’mon, that doesn’t even scan.  And it was the “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” not the “Southern Nonviolence Coordinating Committee.”  The Solicitor General who presented the government’s case was Erwin, not “Edwin,” Griswold.  Et cetera.

But let's not quibble.  What Montville sets out to do, he does very well.  If ever a man was made for his time and rose to its challenges, it was Muhammad Ali in the late 1960s.




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