by Michael Ezra
Michael Ezra blogs about Muhammad Ali and his inspiration for writing Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (now available from Temple University Press).
Although I am not yet forty years old, my relationship with Muhammad Ali the literary figure spans three decades. As just another seven-year-old dragged to the flea market by his bargain-hunting father, I used my only dollar to purchase a worn copy of the book Muhammad Ali: The Holy Warrior by Don Atyeo and Felix Dennis. I didn’t really understand the book or the photo captions, but found it interesting nonetheless.
In sixth grade, when the teacher asked the class what profession we desired as adults, I answered “boxing historian.” During the summer before my senior year in college, my father and I, still searching for literary bargains (we had graduated to outlet malls by then) came upon a discount copy of Thomas Hauser’s definitive biography Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. I bought it and declared that I would write my undergraduate thesis about Ali.
Almost twenty years after I completed the thesis, Temple University Press published my book Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon. Ali was the subject of both my master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation. I have read countless pages about him—which makes sense because he holds the Guinness World Record as the most written about figure in history, ahead of Napoleon, Abe Lincoln, and Jesus—watched hours of videotape and spent years thinking about how to make meaning of one of the most misunderstood figures in American cultural history.
For all that is written about Ali, nobody had ever explored in depth how the economic consequences of his career affected his cultural image. The predominant narratives about Ali frame his politics—refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, joining the Nation of Islam, remaking himself as a figure of tolerance and racial reconciliation—as paramount to how Americans have come to understand him.
Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon does not deny the importance of Ali’s politics, but also urges readers to consider how people have capitalized by spinning such narratives into allegories. Throughout Ali’s fifty years in the limelight, people have made money by framing him as an American hero, a villain, a moral force, or an all-time-great fighter. My book details how these processes have worked.