The first and last image Jonathan Eig says he saw each day in his boyhood bedroom was a poster of Muhammad Ali on the ceiling. In Eig’s view then, Ali was a “superhero.”
The 53-year-old journalist told an audience on Sunday at Chicago’s Emanuel Congregation that he was dumbfounded a few years ago over a realization about Ali.
“There have been a hundred books written about him. There have been terrific books written about him,” Eig said. “But nobody had written the full-blown biography.”
So the author of four books — on Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Al Capone and the scientific team that invented the birth control pill — embarked in 2013 on writing a fifth: “Ali: A Life.”
Eig says he interviewed more than 200 people, collaborated with Arizona State University scientists to analyze Ali’s speech patterns and their neurological implications, commissioned a CompuBox study of every punch landed by and against boxing’s self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time” and pulled no punches in the 500-plus-page biography set for release on Tuesday.
Eig presents an expansive explanation and celebration of Ali as a courageous activist who spoke truth to power for the causes of racial justice and nonviolence, as well as a mythical — and surprisingly humble — personality and athlete. The book also contains grim, disturbing material about the three-time heavyweight champion, who died last year at 74.
“I think a lot of the revelations in the book at first will appear to be negatives,” Eig told Jeremy Schaap of ESPN’s E:60 in a recent interview. “Ali took 200,000 punches; he suffered brain damage far earlier than we thought; he mistreated women, but at the same time, I hope that this book will also help us appreciate him in the larger sense and to see his accomplishments and to see how they fit in, so that the negatives and the positives combine.”
Ali the boxer absorbed “an obscene amount of punishment,” Eig concluded, taking into account amateur and professional bouts, as well as sparring sessions. “Ali started to think that he could build up resistance to punches the same way you might build up calluses.”
Eig said Ali thought if he allowed barrages while sparring, he would get better at taking shots in big fights and outlasting potent opponents, “and it was obviously incredibly dangerous.”
After Ali’s return from a 3½-year exile from the ring imposed because of his refusal to serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, he often took a pounding, even when he won. In that second chapter of Ali’s career, Eig said, he took more blows than he delivered and missed more often than his opponents did — and the ratios got worse and worse.
“He’s winning because he’s Muhammad Ali, in part because he’s the money,” Eig said. “People need him to keep fighting, they need him to be successful for boxing to continue to bring in revenue and, also, in part, because he’s just charming and magnetic and we can’t take our eyes off of him.”
Meanwhile, as Eig details, Ali was a target for the unscrupulous, had a huge entourage and failed to conserve his money.
New evidence of the damage boxing did to Ali’s health comes from ASU’s study of his public speaking from 1968 to 1981 that determined his speech slurred and slowed years before a Parkinson’s syndrome diagnosis in 1984 or even his retirement from the ring in ’81. And Ali’s fight physician, Ferdie Pacheco, told Eig that as early as 1971, after Ali’s brutal first fight with Joe Frazier, he began showing signs of permanent impairment but persisted in pursuing big paydays.
Eig said he was stunned when Ali’s second wife told him of a sordid episode that occurred just hours before that “Fight of the Century” with Frazier at Madison Square Garden.
Khalilah Camacho-Ali, whose name was Belinda Boyd when she married Ali, recounted finding him that day with a naked prostitute in a room at the New Yorker Hotel across from the Garden. And, according to the book, Camacho-Ali threatened to kill them and picked up a steak knife.
But she didn’t stab the woman or Ali, who suffered his first loss that night to the undefeated Frazier and didn’t lose again until two years and 11 fights later, when he faced Ken Norton. Two hours before his 12-round battle with Norton, Ali was in bed with two prostitutes, according to Camacho-Ali and another one of Eig’s interviewees for the book.
Eig said he interviewed Camacho-Ali for more than eight hours over several visits and that she alleged that Ali committed domestic violence against her in 1974, before he fought George Foreman in the African nation then known as Zaire. It was shortly before that trip that Ali met Veronica Porche, who later became his third wife.
“Ali was already having an affair with Veronica and at least one other woman in Africa,” Eig told Schaap. “He became convinced that his wife, Belinda, was having an affair with someone he knew, and there was a confrontation in Zaire that led to Ali punching Belinda in the face.
“And Belinda said she had two black eyes as a result and had to wear sunglasses because she was afraid that if anybody saw that she’d received these black eyes, Ali would get in trouble and the fight would be called off. I don’t think anyone else saw the fight itself, but there were other people who said they saw Belinda with black eyes.”
Camacho-Ali declined an ESPN interview request.
“It’s shocking and it’s horrifying,” Eig said, adding that Porche told him she found Camacho-Ali’s abuse accusation believable. Porche confirmed in the book that Camacho-Ali was hiding two black eyes beneath sunglasses the day after the alleged incident.
“Some people might also argue that he was lacking proper impulse control as a result of tens of thousands of shots to the head, but I don’t think anything excuses it,” Eig said.
The depth of Eig’s digging to comprehend someone he calls “one of the most popular men in the history of the planet” — and how Ali got to be who he was — is on display in the book’s first three sentences:
His great-grandfather was a slave. His grandfather was a convicted murderer who shot a man through the heart in a quarrel over a quarter. His father was a drinker, a bar fighter, a womanizer, and a wife beater who once in a drunken rage slashed his eldest son with a knife.
“You see all the flaws, you see everything in a way that’s far more objective and a lot less fun in a way, because it’s real world,” Eig said. “My job is not to be the judge or the jury.
“You can’t bulls—, you can’t fall for the old myths and you can’t fall in love with your subject, but you also have to be empathetic.”
Ali himself, Eig said, wrestled with the ultimate examination of his life.
“When he was an old man, he said there was a tallying angel and it counted the numbers of bad things you did and the numbers of good things you did, and you went to heaven if you did more good than bad and to hell if you did more bad than good. And he said, ‘I did a lot of bad, and I’ve got to make up for it.'”