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.