Muhammad Ali Has Long Had Book and Film Appeal

A partial list of recent Ali titles could keep a voracious reader busy.

“Blood Brothers,” co-written by Smith and Randy Roberts, was published in 2016, as was “Muhammad Ali: A Memoir,” by talk show host and frequent Ali interviewer Michael Parkinson. In 2017 came Leigh Montville’s “Sting Like a Bee,” which followed the fighter’s dispute withe the U.S. government over his military draft status, and “Ali,” a comprehensive biography by the journalist Jonathan Eig. Stuart Cosgrove’s “Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali” appeared last year.

And those are just the books.

In addition to the films released this year, actor Michael B. Jordan is developing an Ali series with Amazon Studios, and a scripted series based on “Blood Brothers” is in development.

For sports fans and Ali aficionados, there’s no shame in failing to keep pace. Even people who make their living at the intersection of boxing and Black history can feel overwhelmed.

“I’m always shocked to see something out there, and I’m always thinking, How do you tell something new?” Moore said. “I’m just going to give it a break, but I do feel compelled. I’ve got to watch the documentaries eventually. I’m pretty caught up on books, but there’s always a new book, too.”

But experts also understand why Ali’s life makes for compelling books and documentaries.

The first half of the fighter’s career featured a series of personal reinventions, from ebullient gold medalist, to trash-talking heavyweight contender, to world champion aligned with a Black nationalist religious sect who refused to fight in the Vietnam War. His membership in the Nation of Islam put him at odds with the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Opposition to the war in Vietnam later made them allies. Those turning points, Smith says, have helped modern audiences process a fractious time in U.S. history.

“He’s a prism for understanding American history,” Smith said. “Ali is unique as an athlete because he didn’t just reflect American society. He shaped the discourse around race and rebellion and religion and war. That’s why he has this enduring importance.”

Moore traces another reinvention to March 8, 1971, when Joe Frazier knocked Ali down in the last round of their historic title fight. Moore’s research of newspaper archives revealed that most predominantly white daily papers still referred to Ali as Cassius Clay until the Frazier fight, but switched to Ali sometime afterward — satisfied, Moore says, that Ali had been humbled.