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Book Review: Sting Like a Bee

By (May 16, 2017) One Comment

Sting Like a Bee:

Muhammad Ali vs. The United States of America, 1966-1971

by Leigh Montville

Doubleday, 2017

Leigh Montville, great biographer of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, turns in his latest book not to a full-dress biography of the legendary heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali – readers will get a superb example of such a biography in the autumn, from Jonathan Eig – but rather to a discreet period, less than a decade, in the life of the man who had earlier been widely known as Cassius Clay, the Olympic champion and world-famous boxer as popular for his sweet face and motor mouth as for his flashing footwork in the ring. His on-camera charisma made him an unofficial goodwill ambassador to the wider world, conveying an unspoken reassurance, as Montville puts it:

Everyone can get along. That was the unspoken message assigned to him in his later years. He was the black man who didn’t disrupt the most segregated neighborhood. He was the Muslim who didn’t want to blow up anything except injustice. There was a universal acceptability to him. Is that the word? Acceptability? He was a night light in what often seemed to be a very dark world.

Montville concentrates on the period of Ali’s life in which that public charm dimmed and complicated, and the book races at its subject with the burly energy and gawping rhetoric that this author has sharpened into a reading experience that can take some getting used to. He sets up a one-man dialogue with himself, vibrating his prose like a tuning fork, asking, in that last sample, whether or not “acceptability” is the right word not because he thinks you’re going to answer, and not because he didn’t know it was the right word before he typed it, but to create a questing, almost yearning atmosphere as the prose rolls along. He does this throughout his books, perhaps in this one more than the earlier ones because this book’s subject knew a thing or two about that very tactic, and some of the excesses of it will have purists reaching for their camphor oil. The single word “wow” occurs as its own paragraph more than once. Here be dragons.

The period covered by this book matches the frenetic prose style of the book’s author. It was in this part of his life that the man called Cassius Clay changed his name and became fascinated by and indoctrinated into the Nation of Islam, which Montville quickly and colorfully differentiates from the Islam known to the whole world in the 1960s:

[The Nation of Islam was] a racially-based cult as curious as the Hare Krishnas, as suspicious as the Moonies or the Scientologists or any other group that rings your doorbell, ding-dong, and promises salvation as if it were as easy to purchase as a vacuum cleaner with three monthly payments. He fell for it, foolish and proud, young and impressionable, and he wound up in everyone’s house. Ding-dong. Every house in the world.

When Ali’s draft number came up for the Vietnam War, he refused to serve, citing both his religious principles and his personal opposition to the war. His fame notwithstanding, the full weight of the law descended on him: he was arrested, lost his boxing titles, and publicly ruined. And while his appeal was working its way to the Supreme Court, he kept fighting, and those fights are whipcord-tense storytelling highlights studded throughout the book. “The Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier in 1971 is rendered in muted, brutal colors, for instance. And Montville matches perfectly-chosen quotes with novelistic pacing to bring these bouts to life, as in the fight against Jerry Quarry in 1970:

The fight lasted nine minutes.

“The way to a man’s chin is through his stomach,” Quarry had said during the promotion.

“If he gets close enough to hit me in the stomach, he’ll be close enough for me to hit him on the jaw,” Ali had replied.

The latter was the case.

Quarry could not get to Ali. Too fast, too fast. Ali could get to Quarry. No problem. There was a first round to sort of get loose, a second round for Ali to show his domination, a third round of devastation. Two left hooks and a right opened a large cut over Quarry’s left eye. Ali proceeded to hit the cut twelve times by actual count before the round finished.

In the end, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Ali’s favor, and he was a free man, a vindicated man. Montville winds up his account very briskly, in a matter of a dozen pages, after he recounts that decision. His book is a portrait of a fierce and triumphant godling, after all, and the specter of Ali’s long fate – the slack-faced old icon virtually immobilized by Parkinson’s disease – only tends to darken the book’s high spirits:

He was not an extremely old man when he died, seventy-four, same age as Bernie Sanders, who still was running for president, but it seemed as if Muhammad Ali had been old for a long, long time. Disease does that. He had begun to be compromised in the last two fights of his career. He was thirty-nine when he retired. That meant he had been sick, getting sicker, for more than thirty-five years.

Sting Like a Bee tells with grabby, garrulous vividness the story of a different Muhammad Ali than the one who typically comes to mind when readers think about the verbose foil of reporters or the august icon defusing hostage crises or lighting the Olympic torch. This an Ali embattled with very different opponents, and this story of his longest fight makes for utterly compelling reading.