Ali: A Life

From the new biography:

* The Nation of Islam orators spoke of power. They offered proof, divine and historical, that white people were devils and destined to fall. Allah Himself had revealed this to His prophet, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The crowds gazed attentively and hopefully. To [Dick] Schaap, it was a sign of the young boxer’s gullibility. Clay, he said, was so “malleable  .  .  . I could’ve converted him to Judaism.”

But Schaap, as a white man, could not have understood why a young black man from the South might be excited to have divine confirmation of his experiences, to learn that there was a reason black people had been mistreated for so long, and that their suffering would soon end. As James Baldwin wrote, Elijah Muhammad’s messages had power because they articulated the historical suffering of black people and offered a way to end it, investing followers “with a pride and serenity that hang about them like an unfailing light.”

* Then there was Ferdie Pacheco, a doctor who worked in a medical clinic in Miami’s poverty-stricken Overtown neighborhood and hung around the Fifth Street Gym until he became the unofficial physician for Chris and Angelo Dundee’s fighters; “the clap doctor,” the boxing men called Pacheco, because much of his work was devoted to clearing up the boxers’ sexually transmitted diseases.

* Ali: “I like the Muslims. I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me. I like my life. Integration is wrong. The white people don’t want integration. I don’t believe in forcing it, and the Muslims don’t believe in it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims?”

* One day, while complaining about the state of his finances to his friend Tim Shanahan, Ali said he was thinking about bringing in a new manager to straighten things out. “Get me a Jewish lawyer!” he said, half joking.

* The radiologist’s report in 1981 had found Ali’s brain to be normal, but the doctors reviewing the scans at the behest of the magazine were more familiar with boxing-related brain injuries than most radiologists, and they disagreed with the earlier conclusion. They saw signs of significant brain atrophy— specifically, enlarged ventricles and a cavum septum pellucidum, a cave in the septum that shouldn’t be there.

“They read this as normal?” asked Dr. Ira Casson, a neurologist at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center. “I wouldn’t have read this as normal. I don’t see how you can say in a thirty-nine-year-old man that these ventricles aren’t too big. His third ventricle’s big. His lateral ventricles are big. He has a cavum septum pellucidum.” The Mayo Clinic had spotted some of the same things but had deemed them unrelated to boxing. In an interview decades later, Dr. Casson strongly disagreed with that conclusion: “It was all consistent with brain damage from boxing,” he said.

* Ali’s second wife, Khalilah (formerly known as Belinda), had also moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, which further complicated matters. In 1979, Khalilah had landed a part in The China Syndrome, which starred Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon. But after that, her acting career foundered, and she burned through most of the money she had received in the divorce. By the 1980s, she was working as a housecleaner in the same Los Angeles neighborhood in which her ex-husband and his new family resided. She had also been reduced to selling her plasma for ninety dollars a week.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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