The author discusses his latest book, the definitive biography of Muhammad Ali titled Ali: A Life.
Author Jonathan Eig
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
He was known as the wittiest, the strongest, the bravest and, of course, the prettiest fighter of all time. Muhammad Ali was one of the 20th century’s most fascinating figures and, arguably, the most famous man on the planet. So tonight, New York Times’ bestselling author, Jonathan Eig, discusses his new biography, “Ali: A Life”, which reveals The Greatest in the complexity he deserves.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A look at Ali with Jonathan Eig in just a moment.
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Tavis: Jonathan Eig is one of my favorite writers. He is a New York Times bestselling author as well. His latest is a definitive biography of Muhammad Ali. It’s called “Ali: A Life”. Ali, Jonathan, is the only guy who you could put his face on the cover of a book and you ain’t gotta say nothing else.
Jonathan Eig: I know [laugh].
Tavis: The photo — I mean, how many books have you seen where the cover literally just has a photo of the guy? Only Ali. Before our conversation, I’d like to play a clip of Ali from a 1971 conversation with journalist and talk show host, Michael Parkinson.
Tavis: And that is why I love Muhammad Ali [laugh].
Eig: Ali. That’s it.
Tavis: That’s him. Before I go any further into the text, I have my own thoughts about this. We’ve been talking about it now for days. But I’m curious to get your take, Jonathan, on the juxtaposition of what you saw Ali say and do in his lifetime with what we’re seeing Black athletes say and do in the era of Trump, given what happened days ago.
Eig: Well, you just heard him say, “I want to be more than just an athlete. I want to be able to speak my mind and say what I feel, and I’m willing to give up the riches if that’s what it takes because being right and being outspoken and being free is more than all of that.” And for Donald Trump or anybody else to say that these athletes, that any American, isn’t free to speak his mind is just un-American.
And Ali was brave enough to say that when athletes weren’t saying it. Black people were not supposed to say that stuff, especially in the 50s and 60s. You know, Ali said, “I’m not even treated like a second-class citizen here? You tell me I can’t speak my mind?” No way.
Tavis: I wondered the other day when this thing went down days ago, I wondered as I was reading your book what Ali would be saying in this moment if he had his voice and saw what Donald Trump is saying and doing, what he might be saying.
Eig: I think we know what he’d be saying because he already said it. He said, “We all have a right to speak up. We have a responsibility to speak up” and nobody’s gonna tell him to shut up. Nobody’s ever gonna tell Muhammad Ali to shut up.
Tavis: There were a few things. First of all, I want to take my hat off to you and salute you because, first of all, you see the size of this. This is a dense text. He spent some time on this and I think it will be, for years to come, the definitive biography of Muhammad Ali. Those are my words having gone through the text.
But having said that, I was fascinated to get through it to see what new information you had gleaned. Because in some ways, Ali’s been in our face for so long. We tend to think when people like him or Dr. King that we know everything and we really don’t.
So there are two or three things that jumped out at me that I thought was information that I had not heard or seen before and I want to just go through some of that. One is that, in the days since his passing, the months since his passing, some FBI files have been released and you went through those. What’d you find out that we didn’t know about folk in his camp?
Eig: Some of the guys in Ali’s camp, people he really trusted, like Angelo Dundee and Dundee’s brother, Chris, were serving as informants for the FBI.
Tavis: Say it ain’t so. Say it ain’t so. Not Angelo Dundee.
Eig: Yeah, Angelo Dundee. You know, Ali was hanging around with Malcolm X and other members of the Nation of Islam. The FBI wanted to know what he was doing, who he was talking to, and Ali wasn’t really hiding it too well. If you just followed him around, you would have seen. But Angelo Dundee and others offered to work with the FBI and to keep them informed on who was coming around.
Tavis: That didn’t surprise — it shocked me, but it didn’t surprise me in the sense that the same thing happened, of course, to Dr. King. As these FBI files have come out since his passing — since his assassination now almost 50 years ago — we’ve learned more about his inner circle. But did that blow you away when you discovered that?
Eig: No, it didn’t really because we’ve seen it before. You know, there’s the sense of responsibility. The government comes calling and they need your help and you respond. At the time, remember the Nation of Islam was seen as a terrorist group. They were seen as a threat to America.
So for the FBI to come around and say we didn’t know who these people are and it’s for Muhammad Ali’s own protection — or it would have been Cassius Clay at that point — I can see why somebody like Angelo Dundee would go for that. It’s sad, but we have to look at it from his perspective in the 1960s.
Tavis: Do you think that Dundee saw it, to your point, Jonathan, as helping his country and protecting Ali? Or do you think that Dundee was a sell-out?
Eig: I think he saw it as protecting his country. I think he saw, you know, when the FBI comes to you, your first instinct is to help. It’s your government. He didn’t really have the perspective to think about, or maybe he thought that he wasn’t selling out Ali because it was a paternalistic attitude and he thought it was for Ali’s own good maybe.
Tavis: The other thing that you did that I found really fascinating, it was something I never thought about, but I’m glad that you had the wisdom to actually do the research to point this out for us.
Everybody knows that Ali was suffering from Parkinson’s near the end of his life, but you used the technology that’s now available to go back and to actually count the number of punches that Ali took in his career. And what is that number?
Eig: Well, we counted the number of punches in his fights, in his professional fights. And then we extrapolated from that to look at how many rounds of sparring he did, how many exhibitions, how many fights as an amateur. I calculate that he was probably hit about 200,000 times.
Tavis: 200,000 punches in his career.
Eig: Yeah. And he would tell his sparring partners to hit him in the head. He would concentrate on that. He thought that, if you got hit in the head enough, it would build up resistance, like building up callouses, that he wouldn’t be knocked out if he could get used to getting hit in the head. That was obviously a tragic decision on his part.
Tavis: What did you learn about the Parkinson’s and about the diagnosis and when we heard about it versus when there were signs of it. What’d you learn about that?
Eig: Well, you know, he was diagnosed a few years after his retirement, but people like Ferdie Pacheco, who was the ring doctor, started saying that he saw signs of trouble as early as the 1970s, the early 1970s after the first Joe Frazier fight.
And Ali’s own parents started to say, you know, you don’t sound right. You’re mumbling. Why are you walking like that? You’re shuffling your feet. We can’t hear you. Talk up.
So, anecdotally, you can see there are signs that Ali is already starting to suffer damage from all those blows. I worked with some scientists at Arizona State to study Ali’s speech. And over the course of the 1970s, he lost 26% of his speaking rate. His voice started to slow down and he started to…
Tavis: In the 70s?
Eig: In the 1970s while he’s still fighting. So he fights for 10 years after beginning to show signs of damage and he keeps doing it even when Ali recognizes it. He starts saying to reporters, “Do you think I got brain damage? Do I sound wrong to you? Do I sound like I’m slurring my words?” He’s aware of it and he’s still fighting.
Tavis: Were you able to glean — let me just back up and ask you this question, first of all, because, again, I talked about the density of this text. Tell me about your process for writing this, the people you talked to, the interviews you did. Just give me some sense of the research that goes in this.
I ask that because it’s just a matter of time before you see here on PBS a Ken Burns treatment of this. So Jonathan and Ken Burns who, of course, has most recently done his powerful and brilliantly done Vietnam work. There’s a forepart?
Eig: Not sure. Three or four, yeah.
Tavis: Not sure. Three or four foreparts, okay. But there’s a multiple night project that Ken Burns is doing with Jonathan based on this text, so we’re gonna want to know in the months ahead when we see this piece down the road what kind of research went into writing this.
Eig: This was about four and a half years of work, about 600 interviews, more than 200 people. I had access to everybody that I could have hoped for. You know, Ali’s family, his closest friends, his managers, people like Don King, Larry Holmes, George Foreman. Ali’s ex-wives were really open and helpful with me.
They wanted to make sure that Ali’s story was told right, that it was told fairly. You know, it’s been told over the years many times by journalists, but nobody had really stepped back and done the big picture book yet. So I had a lot of cooperation, a lot of help.
Tavis: As a writer, obviously that’s gold, but how did you feel when you received that kind of access from the persons who were closest to him? It’s gold, but it’s a lot of pressure too to get the story right.
Eig: It’s a big responsibility and I feel a responsibility to Ali who I met briefly before he passed away. I said to him, “Listen, I’m doing this book about you and it’s scary because you had in a life like few others, like no other in the 20th century and it’s a frightening responsibility to have that life in my hands and I’m gonna tell your story.” I said to him, “Is there anything you want to tell me? Anything you want to make sure I get in there and get it right?”
He couldn’t speak at that point. He didn’t answer me, but I felt like I owed it to him to do my best and to be as honest and not pulling any punches. I don’t want to make him out to be a saint. I want to tell the truth and I think people will appreciate that more. They’ll understand the real Ali.
Tavis: Every person who writes about somebody who is not — none of us are saints to begin with. I wrote a book, as you know, about Dr. King and I make it clear that King was a public servant. He wasn’t a perfect servant. But when you love someone as much as I love King or as much as you love Ali, it can be hard to write those passages.
But, again, you got to get the truth out. And when you see them in their complexity, you see them in all of their humanity, it makes for a more honest rendering of who they are. That said, what were the tough parts as a fan of Ali to write about?
Eig: There were a lot of tough parts.
Tavis: I’m sure, yeah.
Eig: He wasn’t good to his wives. He wasn’t always a good father, and he was befuddling sometimes even on the things that you were proudest of him for. For example, he takes this stand against Vietnam. He says, “No Vietcong ever called me a [bleep]. I’m not going over there to fight when some people in my country doesn’t treat me right.”
Then a few years later, somebody asked him, “Do you have any regrets, you know, in your life? Anything you would have done differently?” He said, “I wish I hadn’t said that thing about the Vietcong.” I was like, what are you talking about? That was the most profound important thing you ever said.
What it revealed to me was that — and he followed up. He said, “Well, why did you regret that?” He said, “It was because I didn’t want to make so many people mad.”
And what that told me was that he wanted to be loved more than he wanted to be respected and admired. At the same time, he felt this absolute need to be honest and to be free and to fight for what he believed in, but these things were all conflicting within him.
Tavis: As I read that passage — I’m glad you said that and offered that as an example. Because when I read that passage, Jonathan, I didn’t — with all due respect — I didn’t find it befuddling, to use your word. I didn’t find it befuddling because of the point that you finally got to, which is that Ali was such a humanist.
He never wanted to hurt anybody’s feelings. Even when he was teasing Joe Frazier or teasing Floyd Patterson or teasing George Foreman as his life went on, my read of this was that he really started to feel some sort of way when people confronted him about the way he demeaned people even though he saw it mostly as joking and teasing and selling a fight.
But there was this part of him, particularly at the end of his life — and you write about that brilliantly — how once he can no longer talk, he went into overdrive trying to do every single thing he could every hour of the day, as he said to me, to earn his way into the kingdom.
But tell me more about this just overwhelming desire he had to just be good to everybody, to be kind to everybody and to not eve say a word that would make people feel horribly, including the Vietcong, apparently.
Eig: Right, right. Well, even when he said white people were the blue-eyed devils, he said it with this twinkle in his eye and you couldn’t really hate him. And he’d go on “Johnny Carson” and talk to Jerry Lewis and he’d make these jokes. At the same time, he’s saying that all white people were gonna die.
How he pulled this off, this amazing balancing act, is crazy. I think it’s part of the reason why he had trouble with women. His wife said to me, “He didn’t even really like sex that much.” He just liked to please people. He just liked to make them happy and he felt like the more he could give of himself, the happier the world would be. That was Ali.
Tavis: What did you learn about him as a fighter? We talked about the number of punches that he took. Obviously, you can’t talk about him as a man without talking about his role that he played as the greatest of all time in the ring. What’d you learn about his fight game?
Eig: You know, the courage that he showed outside the ring was a key part of his abilities inside the ring. When he was young, he was so fast and he was so strong that he overwhelmed people. He couldn’t be touched.
But after his layoff when he was exiled for three and a half years, he came back and he was slower and his jab wasn’t quite as effective. He started taking punches and he discovered that he could take a punch, that nobody could really put him on the mat.
I mean, Frazier knocked him down, but nobody knocked him out. He developed these other strategies to win and it required him taking a lot of punishment over the years, but he was a smart fighter. He did his homework. He knew what it took to beat these better fighters.
You know, when he beat Sonny Liston in ’64, he knew exactly what he was doing. Everybody thought he had no chance, that he was in over his head, but he had studied Liston and he knew how to match up is talents against Liston’s. So nobody ever really outsmarted him in the ring.
Tavis: Did you learn anything new or thrilling about these major fights? I mean, every Ali fight can be billed as a major fight, but there were some big ones. The Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila and, of course, the Frazier fight at the Garden. Did you learn anything that piqued your interest about these big, big fights?
Eig: Yeah. You know, the Rumble in the Jungle was my favorite. I think that’s the fight that really cements Ali’s legacy, and I wish he’d retired after that one. But George Foreman said to me, you know, “I was drugged before that fight. My manager drugged me.” I said, “George, I read that like 20 years ago. You said that. You still believe it?” He said, “I know it. I was drugged before the fight.”
And then he said to me, “And my manager asked me for $25,000 cash to bribe the referee to make sure it was a fair fight. I found out later that Ali’s camp gave the referee even more than $25,000.” I called Ali’s manager and I said, “Is it true that you guys gave him more than $25,000? You bribed the referee?” His manager said, “No, you kidding me? That’s crazy. We only gave him $10,000.” [laugh]
Tavis: Were they joking or were they serious?
Eig: No, they were serious.
Tavis: They were serious.
Eig: They were serious.
Tavis: And yet the fight came down to what happened in the ring.
Eig: Yeah, Ali wore him out.
Tavis: And I love George Foreman, but if George were drugged, there’s just no way. He gave Ali a beating for the first part of that fight.
Tavis: It was only when Ali let him wear himself out.
Eig: If George was drugged, he’s even stronger than I’d…
Tavis: That’s what I’m saying. Exactly [laugh]. Because he was slapping Ali around a little bit earlier in that fight.
Eig: Yeah, he’s a strong man.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned that you think he should have retired after that fight and I think there are other people who would agree with you. He should have retired then. But he comes back in ’80 or ’81. You write in the book that his family and those close to him begged him not to do that. Why was he so determined to do that when everybody around him said, “Champ, don’t do it.”?
Eig: Well, a lot of it was money as so often happens. You know, he had three ex-wives. He had a lot of kids to support and he had this entourage that was making a lot of money off of him. And boxing wasn’t the same without him.
He loved the attention. He loved the idea of being the first four-time champion and he thought he could beat — he always had confidence. He thought he could beat Larry Holmes and he had no chance.
He wasn’t in good health. He’d been to the Mayo Clinic and been examined and all these tests suggested that something was wrong with him. He was having trouble just doing basic coordination. But they let him in the ring and it never should have happened.
Tavis: What’d you learn about the people more — we talked about Angelo Dundee earlier. What’d you learn about the people around him? Ali is strong, he’s determined. We see him on clips like that. He always seems in control and yet, to your point, everybody has an entourage around them. Did Ali run his entourage or did the entourage run him, or a little bit of both? You tell me.
Eig: Ali was a terrible CEO. He did not know how to run his own business. He didn’t care about money. People would just take whatever they wanted. He didn’t care. People would rip him off and he’d just say, “Well, he must have needed it more than me.”
There’s this great story that Angelo Dundee told where this guy comes into Ali’s camp and he’s in a wheelchair. He’s amputated both legs and he’s wearing a Dodgers cap. Dundee says, “Ali, be careful. That guy’s gonna tell you he’s Roy Campanella, former Dodger catcher, and it’s not Campanella. It’s a con man. Don’t give him any money.”
Next thing you know is Ali’s taking a big wad of money out and handing it to this guy who says he’s Campanella. Angelo comes up to him and says, “Ali, what’d you do that for? I told you he was a con man.” And he says, “Ang, we got legs.” [laugh]
Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. That sounds like Ali. I happen to know very well and considered him a friend. I mean, Ali was a friend as well, but Howard Bingham was my man. And he and Ali were friends until the end. What did you learn about beyond Bingham, his friend and world-famous photographer?
Who were Ali’s real friends? Because, again, when you get to this level, you got a lot of people hanging on, but who were his real friends? Did he have real, true, right or die friends beyond Bingham?
Eig: I think he had a lot. I think he was genuine, you know, when he met people and would take them in off the street. He’d meet somebody in a bar or restaurant and say, “Come to my house for dinner” and these people would become lifelong friends.
And the people who worked with him, the managers, people like Gene Kilroy, people like Larry Cole, these guys who you never heard about, they were with him every step of the way on these journeys and he loved them and really cared for them and wrote them letters when he was overseas.
These beautiful letters that these guys showed me, they’re just so passionate, that he valued their friendship. You know, he would write, “I’m in Afghanistan and it’s a little bit scary and it makes me think about you and the friendship we’ve had over the years. Just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you.” Like who writes letters like that, right? Ali took his time to do that and I think he really loved these people.
Tavis: Much, of course, has been made and always will be of Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta. Tell me about that.
Eig: People forget now that, in the late 80s, early 90s, Ali was kind of lost. He was depressed. He didn’t have enough to do. He didn’t like the way he looked on TV because his [inaudible] and his voice was soft. And you could hire Ali to sit at a trade show desk, you know, for $2,000 and he’d spend all day there signing autographs and he was happy just to be among people, but it was sad.
And a lot of his friends and his wife were worried about him. And then the Olympic torch moment comes. You know, if you remember it in1996, nobody knows who’s gonna light the torch, and Ali steps out from behind this partition just all in white in his track suit and his arm is shaking.
The crowd doesn’t roar. The crowd gasps because they haven’t seen Ali in so long, and it’s like this rediscovery. It’s like we put our arms around him, this guy who was so divisive, who was so hated for so long. Now we see him as a human, as a man who’s suffering, and we just want to hug him. And it’s this reawakening really. It’s the moment I think that Ali’s image changes profoundly.
Tavis: I agree with you. It is the moment that his image changes profound, to quote you. And yet I’ve never been comfortable with that personally. I’ve never been comfortable with it because it’s almost as if once he’s tane and defamed and manicured and deodorized and cannot offend any of us, now we all love the guy.
It’s almost — I felt the same way about Mandela. You know, when Mandela died, everybody at the funeral, all these heads of states and everybody else are saying what a great president he was, what a great man he was, this, that and the other. Nobody wanted to go back to the ANC years. They just wanted to reflect upon his time as the president, how courageous it was he came out of prison.
But you can’t tane people that way. And the story of who they are is a full and complete story which you cover in this text, so I was never comfortable. I mean, I was happy to see people love on Ali, but it’s like you love him now because he’s shaking and he can’t talk.
Eig: No. I agree. It’s safe to — and, you know, Stanley Kraft has this great line. He says, “Ali in the 60’s was a grizzly bear, wild, uncontrollable. In the 70s, he’s like a circus bear. He’s still dangerous, but he’s entertaining. And then after the Olympic torch, he becomes a teddy bear and we just want to hug him.” And we forget that’s not the real…
Tavis: Stanley can turn a phrase. Stanley can turn — that’s beautifully put, the way he said it, yeah, yeah, yeah. You mentioned Ali and his not being a good CEO. Did you get a chance to calculate how much money you think Ali made in his lifetime?
Eig: Yeah. He estimated that it was, I think, $40 or $50 million. That was when he was still fighting toward the end of his career. He had none at that point. He’d blown through all of it and, you know, he just didn’t pay attention.
He had some bad advisers who ripped him off and he always just felt like there’d be more. It just wasn’t his nature to obsess about it. He liked spending it. He liked having nice cars, but he didn’t care and didn’t think about long-term.
Tavis: Don King has been accused more than once of ripping off a whole lot of fighters. What about the King-Ali relationship?
Eig: You know, I said, “Don, how come nobody ever killed you? How did you get away with it? How did you get away with it?” [laugh
Tavis: I want to know how Don responded to that question, why nobody ever killed you?
Eig: He laughed. He gave me a good answer. He said it’s because he went to Elijah Muhammad early on and he said, “I want your blessings to work with Ali because these white people are making all the money off of him and I need to get involved and do my business and some Black people need to be involved in Ali’s management.”
You know, he did some unkind things. He ripped Ali off, but he would argue that he made more money for Ali than he ever could have ripped off. You know, the genius of staging these bouts in Zaire and Manila that he made great fortunes for everyone involved. That’s his side of the story.
Tavis: When we say that Ali at one point was the most famous man on the planet, is that true or is that hyperbole on our part?
Eig: I think it’s true. Before the internet, he was the only guy you could see on live TV around the world. When he fought, the world was watching. He used to talk about it, you know. “17 billion people are watching me. If you put them all in one place, that would stretch out over the course of three different countries!”
He would go crazy exaggerating, but he loved thinking about how all these people were watching him at the same time. And I think it’s true. He was the most recognizable face in the world.
Tavis: What is, to your mind after having done this book, his abiding legacy?
Eig: I think Ali’s legacy is that we have a responsibility to speak up to power, that we have a responsibility to be free and to fight for freedom. He used boxing as a way to grab that power and to speak up for himself and to speak up for his people.
Tavis: Do you think years from now they’ll still be talking about Ali? I ask that because sometimes you have heroes who pass away and it’s like when they pass away, we forget about them. They just disappear and they end up being on some TV show called “Unsung” 25 or 30 years from now. Is Ali’s legacy going to be enduring?
Eig: I think we’ll be talking about Ali for hundreds of years. I mean, if you went to his funeral, you saw. Because have you ever seen anything like that where people from all around the world came just to stand on the street and watch his hearse go by?
There’s a power there that shocked me, even though I’d spent four years researching the man’s life and talking to everybody. But to see that kind of an outpouring from people who just drove from Detroit, from Albany, from South Carolina, just to be there to watch the hearse go by, this man left a mark on the world.
Tavis: I think Jonathan’s right. Years from now, we’ll be talking about Ali, legitimately so. The book is called “Ali: A Life”, by Jonathan Eig. I think you will be empowered by it and entertained by it as well, as I was. Jonathan, good to have you on the program. Congratulations, my friend.
Eig: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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