‘Ali: A Life’ author discusses book before local readings

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 23, 1976 file photo, Muhammad Ali throws a left punch at a sandbag during workout at a gym in Tokyo. Later in the week, the world heavyweight boxing champion met Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki in the world's Martial Arts Championship. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
In this Wednesday, June 23, 1976 file photo, Muhammad Ali throws a left punch at a sandbag during workout at a gym in Tokyo. Later in the week, the world heavyweight boxing champion met Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki in the world’s Martial Arts Championship. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
FILE - In this Nov. 15, 1962, file photo, young heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali,  points to a sign he wrote on a chalk board in his dressing room before his fight against Archie Moore in Los Angeles, predicting he'd knock Moore out in the fourth round, which he went on to do.  The sign also predicts Clay will be the next champ via a knockout over Sonny Liston in eight rounds. He did it in seven rounds. Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Harold P. Matosian, File)
In this Nov. 15, 1962, file photo, young heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, points to a sign he wrote on a chalk board in his dressing room before his fight against Archie Moore in Los Angeles, predicting he’d knock Moore out in the fourth round, which he went on to do. The sign also predicts Clay will be the next champ via a knockout over Sonny Liston in eight rounds. He did it in seven rounds. Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Harold P. Matosian, File) (AP/Harold P. Matosian)
FIULE - In this Nov. 22, 1965, file photo, challenger Floyd Paterson, left, delivers a left hook to the chin of champion Muhammad Ali during the second round of their heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas. Among the questions Jonathan Eig wanted to answer in his upcoming biography of Ali was this: How many punches did Ali take during a career that ended with him devastated by Parkinson's? You'll have to wait until the book comes out to find out, though Ali himself once calculated the figure at 29,000. (AP Photo, File)
In this Nov. 22, 1965, file photo, challenger Floyd Paterson, left, delivers a left hook to the chin of champion Muhammad Ali during the second round of their heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas. Among the questions Jonathan Eig wanted to answer in his upcoming biography of Ali was this: How many punches did Ali take during a career that ended with him devastated by Parkinson’s? You’ll have to wait until the book comes out to find out, though Ali himself once calculated the figure at 29,000. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this April 15, 1975 file photo, Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, and Little Muhammad Ali, his 2 1/2 year old son, arrive at Miami Beach, Fla. Muhammad Ali's son, who bears the boxing great's name, was detained by immigration officials at a Florida airport and questioned about his ancestry and religion in what amounted to unconstitutional profiling, a family friend said Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/File)
In this April 15, 1975 file photo, Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, and Little Muhammad Ali, his 2 1/2 year old son, arrive at Miami Beach, Fla. Muhammad Ali’s son, who bears the boxing great’s name, was detained by immigration officials at a Florida airport and questioned about his ancestry and religion in what amounted to unconstitutional profiling, a family friend said Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/File)
Muhammad Ali outside the Federal Courthouse after he had been found guilty on charges of refusing to be inducted into the Armed Forces on June 20, 1967 in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali outside the Federal Courthouse after he had been found guilty on charges of refusing to be inducted into the Armed Forces on June 20, 1967 in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Anonymous)
A battered Muhammad Ali walks back to his corner as a triumphant Joe Frazier, background, celebrates his title defense after the 15th round of their title bout in New York, March 8, 1971.  After the bout, Ali was taken to have his injured jaw X-rayed.  (AP Photo)
A battered Muhammad Ali walks back to his corner as a triumphant Joe Frazier, background, celebrates his title defense after the 15th round of their title bout in New York, March 8, 1971. After the bout, Ali was taken to have his injured jaw X-rayed. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
March 1971:  In a title fight at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Muhammad Ali goes down in the 15th round to a left hook from world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who kept the title with an unanimous points win. Cameramen are crowded round the ring.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
March 1971: In a title fight at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Muhammad Ali goes down in the 15th round to a left hook from world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who kept the title with an unanimous points win. Cameramen are crowded round the ring. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) (Getty Images/Keystone)
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali leans on the ropes after he successfully defended his title against Earnie Shavers at New York's Madison Square Garden, Sept. 29, 1977.  Ali was awarded an unanimous decision in the fifteen-round fight with Shavers. At right is Ali's aide Drew "Bundini" Brown.  (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali leans on the ropes after he successfully defended his title against Earnie Shavers at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Sept. 29, 1977. Ali was awarded an unanimous decision in the fifteen-round fight with Shavers. At right is Ali’s aide Drew “Bundini” Brown. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler) (AP/Marty Lederhandler)
Perspiration beads the face of world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali shown in training for his May 25, 1965 fight with Sonny Liston at Lewiston, Maine.  (AP Photo)
Perspiration beads the face of world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali shown in training for his May 25, 1965 fight with Sonny Liston at Lewiston, Maine. (AP Photo) (AP)
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), the deposed world heavyweight boxing champion, told an anti-war rally at the University of Chicago on May 11, 1967 that there is a difference between fighting in the ring and fighting in Vietnam. (AP Photo/Charles Harrity)
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), the deposed world heavyweight boxing champion, told an anti-war rally at the University of Chicago on May 11, 1967 that there is a difference between fighting in the ring and fighting in Vietnam. (AP Photo/Charles Harrity) (AP/Charles Harrity)
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FILE - In this Wednesday, June 23, 1976 file photo, Muhammad Ali throws a left punch at a sandbag during workout at a gym in Tokyo. Later in the week, the world heavyweight boxing champion met Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki in the world's Martial Arts Championship. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
FILE - In this Nov. 15, 1962, file photo, young heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali,  points to a sign he wrote on a chalk board in his dressing room before his fight against Archie Moore in Los Angeles, predicting he'd knock Moore out in the fourth round, which he went on to do.  The sign also predicts Clay will be the next champ via a knockout over Sonny Liston in eight rounds. He did it in seven rounds. Ali turns 70 on Jan. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Harold P. Matosian, File)
FIULE - In this Nov. 22, 1965, file photo, challenger Floyd Paterson, left, delivers a left hook to the chin of champion Muhammad Ali during the second round of their heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas. Among the questions Jonathan Eig wanted to answer in his upcoming biography of Ali was this: How many punches did Ali take during a career that ended with him devastated by Parkinson's? You'll have to wait until the book comes out to find out, though Ali himself once calculated the figure at 29,000. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this April 15, 1975 file photo, Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, and Little Muhammad Ali, his 2 1/2 year old son, arrive at Miami Beach, Fla. Muhammad Ali's son, who bears the boxing great's name, was detained by immigration officials at a Florida airport and questioned about his ancestry and religion in what amounted to unconstitutional profiling, a family friend said Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/File)
Muhammad Ali outside the Federal Courthouse after he had been found guilty on charges of refusing to be inducted into the Armed Forces on June 20, 1967 in Houston, Texas. (AP Photo)
A battered Muhammad Ali walks back to his corner as a triumphant Joe Frazier, background, celebrates his title defense after the 15th round of their title bout in New York, March 8, 1971.  After the bout, Ali was taken to have his injured jaw X-rayed.  (AP Photo)
March 1971:  In a title fight at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Muhammad Ali goes down in the 15th round to a left hook from world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who kept the title with an unanimous points win. Cameramen are crowded round the ring.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali leans on the ropes after he successfully defended his title against Earnie Shavers at New York's Madison Square Garden, Sept. 29, 1977.  Ali was awarded an unanimous decision in the fifteen-round fight with Shavers. At right is Ali's aide Drew "Bundini" Brown.  (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Perspiration beads the face of world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali shown in training for his May 25, 1965 fight with Sonny Liston at Lewiston, Maine.  (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), the deposed world heavyweight boxing champion, told an anti-war rally at the University of Chicago on May 11, 1967 that there is a difference between fighting in the ring and fighting in Vietnam. (AP Photo/Charles Harrity)

WASHINGTON — When you’re trying to condense a life to a book, there’s always the fear of missing something essential, letting a vital detail slip through the cracks.

When writing a biography of Muhammad Ali, quite probably the single most important athlete of the 20th century, that challenge is amplified exponentially. So it should be no surprise that Jonathan Eig’s “Ali: A Life” is a monster — just the notes and appendix comprise 80 pages — but it becomes quickly obvious why such depth is necessary.

Eig conducted more than 500 interviews, starting the process a full three years before Ali’s death last summer.

“I knew it was going to be a heavyweight book, because Ali’s life was so big,” Eig told WTOP, explaining that he considered actually splitting it into two volumes.

Ali’s wife Lonnie coached and helped Eig along the way, but he insisted on an unauthorized biography, to keep the managers’ and handlers’ fingers off his copy, ensuring nothing unsavory about the man was polished for public consumption. To Eig, the posthumous photoshopping of Ali’s image has already taken away from his real story.

“Much too much,” Eig said of dirty details stripped away. “We’ve turned him into this saint.”

Part of that past Eig dug up in his research included thousands of pages of previously unreleased files from the Justice Department and the FBI, who were worried that Ali’s ties to the Nation of Islam might inspire widespread rejection of the military draft that Ali himself refused to abide.

“He was dangerous. He was frightening. He was the most hated man in America,” said Eig.

Ali’s trials and tribulations are also reflected heavily in today’s sports landscape, in ways both obvious and not. His social activism resonates through today’s NFL protests — which “haven’t really progressed much in terms of our tolerance of black athletes,” per Eig. But Ali’s late-life dementia — which Eig determined was the result of more than 200,000 punches landed against him — echoes in our discussions of CTE, of what level of brutality is morally acceptable in our entertainment.

Eig’s tome covers that and much more, from Ali’s birth to his death. “Ali: A Life” is on sale now, and you can catch Eig at Politics & Prose in D.C. Wednesday at 7 p.m. and at the Pratt Library in Baltimore Thursday at 6:30 p.m.


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