Death to hagiographers!

The new wave in sports biography, including the latest revisionist look at Muhammad Ali, is to trash the once-hallowed subject.

By Allen Barra

Published June 27, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

There's a new kind of sports biography that seems designed to obliterate, not enlighten. Curiously, they are being published at a time when books about current or recent athletes such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or maybe Magic Johnson are blander than ever, as "authorized" as movie star profiles in the slick magazines. Or maybe not so curiously, considering that modern athletes have the same kind of P.R. protection as movie stars.

The new blockbuster sports book is about past icons and how unworthy they are of the worship their legends have inspired. The most sensational recent example is Richard Ben Cramer's "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life," which took 700 pages to tell us what we already knew, namely that Joe DiMaggio the man was unworthy of Joe DiMaggio the Legend. (To which I would think any intelligent fan's reply would be: "Of course he wasn't. Who could be?")

Now we have Mark Kram's "The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier," which, in the author's words, is "intended to be a corrective to the years of stenography that produced the Ali legend."

Since Wilfred Sheed's underrated Ali book is praised by Kramer and since the Gerald Early-edited "Muhammad Ali Reader" isn't mentioned, one assumes Kram's major targets are authorized Ali biographer Thomas Hauser (who certainly deserves a swift boot), Norman Mailer (who is openly criticized) and David Remnick (who isn't). Kram, who wrote several brilliant, skeptical pieces on Ali's fights for Sports Illustrated (one of which, on the Ali-Frazier Manila fight, was collected in Early's reader), might have served himself better by simply collecting the stories and framing them with introductions and epilogs.

As it stands, "Ghosts of Manila" keeps veering from its announced subject and into the author's seemingly endless series of grudges until it becomes not a book about the blood feud between Ali and Frazier, which produced the most thrilling three-fight sequence in boxing history, Willie Pepp-Sandy Sadler and any three of the Sugar Ray Robinson-Jake LaMotta bouts not excepted, but about Kram's own blood feud with Ali and his times. Kram's biggest feud would seem to be with Mailer, "who settled on Ali like a mollusk." But when you read passages like "If Ali had been a sonata of sometimes bewildered withdraw, Frazier was a brass section insistent on sending out a triumphal arch of sound not consonant with his early self," you might want to scream, "Come back, Aquarius, all is forgiven."

Kram writes that his book will be "revisionist only to those who will not like their mythic perception jostled." Well, I love having my mythic perceptions jostled, but what I get in "Ghosts of Manila" is shots at a series of straw men. "Countless hagiographers," he writes, "never tire of trying to persuade us that he ranked second only to Martin Luther King, but have no compelling argument to support that claim." Agreed, but who exactly are these "hagiographers" who made such silly claims, and why are they worth skewering now?

And having reminded us that Ali was not Martin Luther King Jr. -- in case you still thought he was -- Kram jumps to the "Current hagiographers" (I can't remember the last time I saw hagiographers get worked over so soundly) who "have tied themselves in knots trying to elevate Ali into a heroic, defiant catalyst of the antiwar movement, a beacon of black independence ... The sad truth was that Ali was played like a harp by the Muslims, a daft cult with a long record of draft dodging." Kram does have a point here, but it does not survive the invective he brings to the argument.

I have no trouble believing that Kram is more right than not right about the Muslims and still saying that he has missed the point on Ali. He was, simply, a heroic, defiant catalyst of the antiwar movement, or at least if he was not entirely that he was more that than not that, and it is sad that Kram feels it necessary to dump on Ali's religious faith in order to make his point.

"Draft dodging," at least in the sense that it applies to real draft-dodging American heroes from Jack Dempsey to John Wayne, is hardly the issue, as Ali surely could have wrangled himself a soft Army job of the type enjoyed by Joe Louis and countless white celebrities. The point is that the most famous man in the world, at the height of his fame, chose, in Bob Dylan's words, to serve somebody, and if the religion he chose was unworthy of the faith he put into it -- and how many religions, if their creeds are taken literally, prove to be? -- why deny that Muhammad Ali was simply a better man for his faith in his God?

As for Ali's politics, Kram digs himself an intellectual hole with arguments that the Muslims put antiwar slogans into Ali's mouth, and that "Ali would have been hard pressed to find Vietnam on a map." That someone might not know where a distant country was might make an excellent reason, in times of undeclared war, for not sending him there to kill people he knows nothing about. Perhaps we should simply be grateful for the fact that Ali, despite his lack of formal education, was still able to make the right decision. Or does Kram want to re-argue that, too?

It probably hasn't occurred to Kram that the biggest loser in his book is Joe Frazier, the man who is given co-billing on the cover but second banana status inside. In what was probably the greatest shame of his career, Ali, who had been supported by Frazier when the government stripped him of his title, cold-bloodedly cast Frazier as the champion of white America during his comeback -- a subject, by the way, that has already been handled, and well, in HBO's superb documentary last year. Frazier's failure to rise above Ali's slight is as tragic in its way as the Parkinson's that Frazier's fists helped put in Ali's body; Frazier now seems as debilitated by hatred as Ali is by disease. But Kram seems willing to grant Frazier the role of victim that he has chosen for himself, and in doing so both unwittingly secure for Joe the eternal status of Appendage to the Ali Legend.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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