Book Review: The Complete Muhammad Ali
by Ishmael Reed
Publication Date: Jul 16, 2015
List Price: $22.95
Format: Paperback, 448 pages
Imprint: Baraka Books
Publisher: Baraka Books
Parent Company: Baraka Books
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Book Reviewed by Tony Lindsay
Ishmael Reed’s The Complete Muhammad Ali is much more than a standard biography. The work provides specific details on numerous facets that surrounded Ali’s life, and the reader acquires knowledge about Ali which previously went undiscussed. Ali’s relationship with Elijah Muhammad is analyzed, and the champion’s politics are linked to his ideology and his beliefs. The conflicts in Muhammad Ali’s volatile and controversial marriages are also examined.
Reed’s depiction of Ali’s and Elijah Muhammad’s relationship is that of a tutor and a student with the tutor offering strong parental guidance. Initially, Elijah thought of Ali’s boxing as being subservient to white America. He thought Black boxers were offering entertainment to the white oppressors. He felt the same about professional singers and actors; he believed Black people should not be entertainers for whites. Elijah’s consistent message to Ali was to be independent of white America, and this independence included military service.
Elijah believed that Black Americans should not fight in white America’s wars. Elijah refused to go war himself, and he served time in prison for his stance. Muhammad Ali followed Elijah’s example and his directive by refusing to serve in Vietnam. Reed offers two arguments about the effect of the decision: one, it put Ali in America’s consciousness and brought him world attention, and two, the imprisonment harmed his career by locking him at his physical prime. Whichever effect presided; Reed makes it clear that Ali’s decision was prompted by Elijah’s directive.
Elijah’s parental role influenced Ali’s choice of his first wife, and the parental role surfaced in Elijah providing management for Ali’s boxing career, and it appeared when Elijah secured Nation of Islam protection for Ali against mafia involvement in his boxing promotions. As Reed illustrates, Ali respected and adhered to much of Elijah’s council, but Elijah was not his solitary influencer.
The motivators and politics of Ali are discussed throughout the text. The reader learns that Ali was often to the right of political and social issues that affected Black people, and monetary gain played a major part in many of his boxing and personal decisions. Ali was viewed as one with strong Black nationalist views, and Reed reveals some choices and comments (particularly his distancing himself from Malcolm X) that will surprise most readers. Also, some of Ali’s noted associations and recorded business dealings are shocking considering his image a strong righteous Black man.
Reed does not present Ali’s early marriages as partnerships; Ali was clearly the dominant force inserting his will over his wives and his children. Such dominance is conflict rich, and Ali’s marriages were no exception. Reed’s discovery and telling of the conflicts gives the reader clear insight into Ali the man. Reed’s portrayal of Ali’s romantic involvement is not censored; leaving the reader to form their own opinions. Ali’s last marriage is presented in stark contrast to the others largely due to his sickness. Again, Reed remains informative leaving it to reader to construct their own summations regarding Ali’s controversial last marriage. Reed does not falsely praise Ali, nor does he write undue criticism. As the title implies, he offers a “complete” look at the life of an American icon.