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How Jon Eig crafted the comprehensive account of Muhammad Ali in 'Ali: A Life'

The title of Jon Eig's new book could not be more straightforward: "Ali: A Life." But we can't be deaf to the size of the claim that Eig is making any more than we can be blind to the size -- the 600-page heft -- of the book itself.

Until yesterday's publication of "Ali: A Life," there was no life of Muhammad Ali, no comprehensive account of the man who called himself -- and came to be called -- "The Greatest." Now, where once yawned a vacuum, there now stands a cinderblock, the product of 400 interviews conducted over five years of archival research and shoe-leather detective work. The Ali who emerges from Eig's biography is not the saint so many have made him out to be, but rather a figure whose humanity is earthy, complicated, fallible and thus, in these pages, restored.

In this Q&A, Eig laments what he calls "the sanctification" of Ali, but in the end he comes to a judgment of Ali very much in keeping with Ali's judgment of himself.

Tom Junod: Is this book the first true biography of Muhammad Ali? How do you define "biography," and how does this book fit that standard while others do not?

This is the first complete biography of Ali. Claude Lewis wrote one, and John Cottrell, Jose Torres, but that's when he was still active. In fact, his career had barely begun when Claude Lewis and John Cottrell wrote those books. It was a biography, but it was only a partial biography because he was only 23 years old, and he was 28 or 29 when Jose Torres wrote [about] him. There were a lot of other books that covered his life in different ways. ... So there's a lot of books, but none of those, to me, are complete biographies because they don't complete his whole life. The Thomas Hauser book comes closest, but it's an oral history, and it was authorized by Ali and his family, so it wasn't as objective as mine.

Were there natural and unnatural hurdles that you had to surmount in order to get that book? Was his family welcoming or not?

It was complicated, and it changed all the time. I did not seek approval to write the book; I just started doing it. Very quickly, almost within a couple of months of getting my contract, I heard from Ali's representatives, and they wanted to know if I would consider making this an authorized project. They would give me some cooperation. They would help me gain access to key sources. And they would have some say over what I wrote, and we would split the money somehow. But it never got far enough to figure out how to split the money because I said no right away. That's not the kind of book I wanted to write. I didn't want my hands tied in any way.

An authorized biography would have been a very different biography.

There's a lot of stuff in the book that does not reflect all that well on Ali, and I have no idea, but I'm guessing they would not have wanted some of that in there.

What is the narrative that they have wanted to put forth, and what is the narrative that you put forth in your book?

Well, I did not go into this with any particular philosophy. I wanted to just tell the truth, as close as I could get to the truth, and lay it all out there as objectively as I could. Dig up everything I could dig up and let the reader judge how they felt about Ali. Obviously, the Ali family, the Ali Center and the Ali marketing company are interested in a very different approach to marketing his brand and keeping his image alive. They are concerned with his legacy in a different way than I'm concerned with it, and it's understandable.

In terms of Ali, there's the old saw, "When given the choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend." Do you think that, so far, given your ground-level acquisition of knowledge, do you think that we've been given the legend?

Yeah. The more time goes by, the more we get the legend of Ali and the further we get from a lot of the truth. That's true with almost anybody in history -- the legend of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or even Al Capone cracking heads with a baseball bat. These things grow over time, and they harden. After a certain point, we just accept them as truth because we've heard of [them] so many times, and that's starting to happen with Ali. The story of him throwing his Olympic medal in the river -- that didn't happen, but most people think it did.

He wrote that it happened in his book!

He wrote that it happened in his book, but then he said, "I've never read that book," and he admitted it never happened.

The narrative that's been advanced about Ali is a kid, innocent, who basically lost his innocence when he came back after the Olympics, transforms himself into the Louisville Lip, who sort of captures the devil-may-care excitement of the early sixties, and then is matched with the period of enlightenment where he converts and also takes a stand against the war, comes back more of a warrior, takes a beating, but becomes a citizen of the world and is subject to almost like a ritualistic mortification once his body begins failing him, where he becomes a saintly figure. Out of that, what's missing?

A lot is missing. It's so much more complicated than that. First of all, the sanctification, I think, is really unfortunate because it means that we should only love Ali when he's harmless, when he's mute and when we pity him. And that's ridiculous. We should love and honor Ali when he got in our faces and when he challenged us. All of it is much more complicated than that. He's a rebel from the earliest days of his life. He just wanted to provoke people. He wanted to do things differently. He wants to upset people, and he wants to be loved at the same time. He has two warring impulses that drive him, and you can look at every stage in his life, and you can see those two impulses at war. When he comes back from the Olympics, he loves being loved and loves being famous. He's wearing his gold medal everywhere he goes. He's stopping people in the middle of the street and says, "Do you know who I am?" And at the same time, he can use this thing to piss people off, and he can start talking about how unfair white people are treating black people. He falls in love with the message of Elijah Muhammad, and somehow he never seems bothered by the fact that these two impulses are at war with one another.

Does that persist throughout his life?

I think it does. When he joins the Nation of Islam, he's doing it partially because it really speaks to him -- that white people are never going to give black people a chance -- and this group is all about black power, independence and separatism, and that speaks to him. At the same time, he also realized that it's provocative and it's going to make people angry, and he likes that part of it too. Yet he talks to white reporters about this, and he expects them to love it and to praise it, and he does it with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of humor, and he doesn't want anyone to be mad at him, even though he knows what he is saying is provocative. It's a balancing act that I don't think anyone else could've gotten away with. And he gets away with it because he's just so much fun and so charismatic.

When I was writing about his burial, the thing that came across so very strongly is how much he needed people who needed him. Especially when he was older and infirm, he still liked to reach out to people and have people recognize him and respond to him. Is that a legend, or do you think that is true and is who he became over time?

The question about needing to be needed is a really interesting one. He absolutely loved making a difference in people's lives. He loved having this entourage that counted on him, and I suppose ... one of the big reasons that he fought too long is that he couldn't imagine cutting loose all these people who have built their lives around him. His wife Khalilah said that's why he slept with all these women. He'd sleep with anybody just because he thought they needed it. She said he didn't even like sex. He just wanted to make people happy.

One of Ali's managers told me this story of walking in on him in a hotel room where Ali was sleeping with this old, overweight chambermaid. The manager said, "Ali, there's 30 of the most gorgeous women in the lobby just waiting to see you down there, why are you sleeping with the chambermaid?" ... He just looks up and goes, "First of all, nobody is ever going to believe her if she tells, and second of all, she's going to remember this for the rest of her life!"

He wasn't a horny toad; he just wanted to spread the love.

What did Ali become if not a saint?

Ali was so many things to so many people. What would the moral of his story be? I think he really wanted to be good. I mean, he wasn't good to his wives, but he wanted to be good to everybody. He wanted to be everything to all people. He felt like his life had a calling, and he wanted to embrace that.

What's the closest you came to meeting him?

I did get to speak to him. I whispered in his ear. I was at a fundraising dinner, and he was alone at his table before the event began, with his wife and sister-in-law, and I went up to Lonnie and asked if she would introduce me to Muhammad, who is sitting there at the table with a bowl of soup. Lonnie introduced me, and he didn't really look up. I put my hand on his arm, and I said, "My name is Jonathan Eig, and I'm writing a big book about you, and it's a great privilege, and I'm trying as hard as I can to do it right, and I just wanted to know if there was anything you wanted to say." I didn't get any response. He didn't look at me. He didn't answer. I couldn't tell if he heard me or not, but Lonnie said later that he definitely heard me. That was as close as I got to speaking to him.

You went all the way back. You found the marriage certificate for Ali's parents. Did you also find his birth certificate?

Yes, I found the birth certificate, and his name was misspelled on that. I found, and I don't think Ali even knew this, but his grandfather was a convicted murderer, and I found the trial transcripts, and I was able to get a lot of detail on the murder itself. I found in these interviews that Ali's aunts and uncles have given over the years on the family history that Ali's grandfather had spent some time in jail. That was as much as they said, so I tried to track down criminal records on him, and I found a small story in the Louisville newspaper that Herman Heaton Clay was charged with murder, killing a guy over a quarter in a craps game. They were playing craps on the street, and Ali's grandfather just swiped a quarter from a guy and walked away. He said, "If you come after me for this quarter, there's going to be trouble." ... Herman and his brother were standing on the corner, and a friend of the guy who lost the quarter came up to them and [asked about his friend's quarter], and Herman pulled out his gun and shot him.

Jon, of all the people you've spoken to for this book, is there one that got away?

Lonnie is the source I wished I could've spent more time with and talked to at a greater length, but she made a choice that it wasn't for her, and I respect that. I got Don King, and he was really shockingly honest and really incisive, but he only gave me half an hour, and I would've really loved to have [had] more time with him.

How did you land Don King?

I called him 100 times, and he didn't answer his phone. The first time he answered his phone he said, "Oh, yeah, I'd love to do the interview, but I'm working on peace in the Middle East, so I really don't have time."

I was in Vegas interviewing Gene Kilroy, and I spotted Don King in the lobby. I chased him down, and Gene helped get him to sit down with me, but that was only five minutes. I could tell in those five minutes that ... he was really incisive, and I became determined to keep trying and not let it go.

Then I heard that he was going to be in Easton, Pennsylvania, at a Larry Holmes statue dedication, and I thought that's the perfect place to try to get him. There won't be any national media there, he has to spend at least a whole day in Easton. So I flew to Easton, just hoping that I could harass Don King into an interview.

I spent the whole first day just following him around and getting chummy and trying to ask him a few questions. On the second day, in a crowded room with all of these people around us, he said, "Now is your chance." There's a band playing right outside the door -- it was loud and [I] really couldn't hear anything -- but I knew this might be it. ... I was thinking all day about what I was going to ask him, to try and get past the bull and get into the good stuff, because I didn't know how much time I would have, so I shoved my microphone right in his face because it was so loud, and I said, "Don, how come nobody has ever killed you?"

He just laughed, but he gave me a great answer. He answered totally straight. He said he went to Elijah Muhammad. ... He said Elijah wanted him to join the Nation of Islam, and he said, "I would have done it, but I couldn't give up the pork."

He said he tried to convince Elijah Muhammad to change the laws against eating pork, and then he'd become a member of the Nation of Islam. He did not succeed, but he still felt that he had a strong relationship with Elijah Muhammad, and it gave him the protection he needed.

Did you have any moments like that, where you kind of realized that maybe your opinions or what you had heard about Ali just was not quite right?

Totally. A lot of them. Even the core things that I loved about Ali were challenged. When Ali first started talking about Vietnam, he said that he just didn't want to go. It was a bad idea. He didn't mind the war; he just didn't want to be over there. He said, "You could take my tax dollars and spend them on bomber jets. ..." Then he changed it, and he asked why he should fight for this country when they're treating him like a second-class citizen? "Why should I go and kill those dark-skinned people because my government tells me to? I don't think that's right." And then he says it's against his religion. He comes to it gradually, which is human nature, but it goes against the legend that he was just a conscientious objector who protested the war. And then, it gets even crazier, because by the mid-seventies, he says he regrets the stand he took. ... And he says he regrets it because he made people mad.

When I think of Don King and how much Don got away with at Ali's and some other fighters' expense, was Ali's narrative also a narrative of someone who was, over the course of his life, taken advantage of?

He was usually taken advantage of because he never cared and he let people do it. Time after time, he had chances to set things right and put somebody in charge of his money. He clearly wasn't ever going to do it himself, but he realized a couple times how bad it was getting. He tried to rectify it, and he brought in serious financial advisors, but he could never discipline himself to listen to their advice. The financial advisors said he'd need a 24-hour bodyguard to keep him from signing all these ridiculous contracts.

If you have one word to describe him, what would it be?

I'd have to say great. The greatest. Great contains all of his multitudes. You can't pick one specific thing of Ali. You can't just say he was loving or courageous or rebellious. I think you have to go with something that contains his multitudes, and I'll stick with it because it was his favorite -- the greatest.