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Float like a butterfly, sting like Ali

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. and younger brother Rudy used to listen to the rickety wooden roller coaster and the screams of riders from Fontaine Ferry Park.

Louisville's amusement park was within walking distance of the boy's house, and they would stand at the fence looking in. But that's as close as they could get growing up in the separate-and-unequal South, where the amusement park was in between two parks, one for whites and one for "colored people."

"They could hardly miss the message as to whose fun mattered and whose did not," writes Jonathan Eig, author of the voluminous "Ali: A Life" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 539 pages, $30.)

Dozens of books have been written about Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali's unparalleled boxing career, and of the spiritual and political changes he went through that made his journey synonymous with the Black Power struggle of the 1960s. Those areas are recounted with considerable detail in Eig's carefully researched, well-written and hefty tome. But it's in the less-reported areas of Ali's life that the book is most revealing.

Eig reveals much about the family and the segregated South Ali was born into, the families he created as an adult and the role the Nation of Islam had on his life.

We learn right from the opening bell that Ali's great-grandfather was a slave and once the property of Henry Clay, senator from Kentucky.

Ali's grandfather was a convicted murderer who shot a man in a quarrel over a quarter. And his father, Cassius Sr. was a heavy drinker, a bar fighter, a womanizer and wife beater. Once, in a drunken rage, he slashed 15-year-old Cassius with a knife, the lowest point of an anguished home life that Cassius never spoke about publicly.

At age 12, Cassius was introduced to boxing by Joe Martin, a white policeman and part-time boxing coach. Cassius, Martin said, "was easily the hardest worker of any kid I ever taught."

He won a Golden Gloves title while still in high school, and an Olympic Gold Medal and first two professional fights months after graduating. A group of white Louisville businessmen played a pivotal role in Clay's life by managing his business interests with great care out of a sense of civic pride.

Boxing more than any other sport in those days allowed black athletes to compete on a level ground with white athletes. In the 27 years between Joe Louis winning the title in 1937 and Ali gaining the crown in 1964, five of the seven champions were black.

Louis was considered the greatest champion before Ali came along, and he held the title longest. He was widely admired for having served in World War II, and for scoring a first-round knockout of German boxer Max Schmeling in 1938. Louis also didn't wade into civil rights issues, or behave in any ways that might stir controversy.

Clay -- tall and handsome, with an irresistible smile and charisma to spare -- was another matter. His speed and dance-like movements in the ring were unheard of in a heavyweight. But his bravado -- including making up poetry about his opponent and predicting the round the fight would end -- was also unfamiliar ground. So were the rants that made Clay a wild card, and his later outspoken comments on race and the Vietnam war.

The underdog Clay was 22 when he "shocked the world" by beating the feared Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship in February 1964. In 16 days the Beatles would make their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," another of that explosive decade's cultural touchstones.

The next month, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.

We learn how Ali, while in high school, was drawn to the Nation of Islam's teachings promotion of black pride and self-reliance, and its view of Christianity as a religion forced on blacks by slave masters and their descendants.

Malcolm X, a minister of he Nation of Islam, became Clay's religious mentor. But Malcolm turned away from the Nation partly out of disgust over its philandering leader, Elijah Muhammad, who had impregnated seven secretaries over the course of a decade without repercussion. Alarmed by Clay's relationship with Malcolm, Muhammad summoned the young fighter and gave him his new name, obtaining Clay's allegiance to him at the same time.

"[Elijah Muhammad] did it to prevent him from coming with me," Malcolm X said, leaving many to wonder what might have been if Clay had followed Malcolm and not the Nation of Islam.

Ali also was married in 1964, tying the knot with cocktail waitress Sonji Roy. Their rocky marriage was unable to survive Roy's rejection of Islam, and her refusal to abide by the religion's dress requirements. In one disturbing scene, Ali forces his sexily-clad wife into a bathroom, tears her dress and slaps her after first trying to cover her up in front of other Muslims.

As Eig notes, Ali's home life was in continual chaos due to around-the-clock womanizing. It began with second wife Belinda Boyd, who was 17 when they married.

Belinda said her husband was a "sex addict" who had relations with numerous women throughout their marriage, including his first wife, a high-school sweetheart, random women and prostitutes procured by one of his employees.

Ali eventually enlisted Belinda to arrange his extramarital affairs by booking hotel rooms for his mistresses. One, 18-year-old  Veronica Porsche, became his third wife, but the womanizing continued with her, too.

Ali was also an absentee father. He had seven children with his four wives, and several others from extramarital affairs, but had little involvement in raising them, Eig writes.

Ali defended his heavyweight crown nine times against leading contenders. But after he refused induction into the Army during the Vietnam war -- "I aint' got no quarrel with the Vietcong," he famously said -- Ali was stripped of his boxing title in the prime of his career for 3 1/2 years. The Supreme Court ultimately sided with Ali on a technicality.

During that period Ali was also suspended from the nation of Islam by Elijah Muhammad. After the leader's death in 1975, a son led the newly-named organization into orthodox Islam, rejecting Elijah Muhammad's contention that Caucasians were "white devils." The religion now welcomed all peoples, a change Ali embraced.

Ali returned to the ring in October 1970 to fight contender Jerry Quarry, but the unparalleled speed he once displayed was mostly gone after his return. There would be three exhaustive matches with Joe Frazier and perhaps his greatest triumph in the ring, a stunning knockout of George Foreman in Zaire to reclaim his title.

But the last several years were a drawn-out and tragic end to Ali's boxing career, in which "the Greatest" was reduced in the ring to a mere shell of his former self. Eig suggests Ali's creeping brain damage, diagnosed in 1984 as Parkinson's syndrome, may have been a factor in his decision to keep fighting.

Eig cites an analysis that showed Ali was hit far more often -- including shots to the head -- after the long layoff. Another study showed Ali's speech slowed and his ability to clearly articulate his words started eroding after 1971.

Ali's popularity would soar toward the end of his boxing career and continue until his death. People across the nation shed tears at the unexpected sight of a trembling Ali appearing unannounced to light the Oympic torch at the opening ceremony of the 1996 event.

Writer Stanley Crouch said Ali acted like a bear, deadly dangerous and impossible to control, early in is career. Later, he was more like a circus bear -- one that flashes its teeth and claws but does no real harm.

Eig's book does a solid job in going down the well-worn path showing how Ali was a revolutionary and transformational figure in contemporary American history, as well as possibly the greatest heavyweight boxer in his prime.

But it's in the lesser-reported areas of his life -- often illuminating, and sometimes unflattering -- that "Ali: A Life" makes its mark.

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