Howard Bingham’s title, “Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight : Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America”, explains the thesis of his book. Ali’s most powerful opponent wasn’t Liston or Frazer or Foreman but the government of the United States. I have to say that this could well be the most enjoyable book I will read this year. Bingham presents the compelling story of Ali’s fight to follow his own personal morality. Even a serious student of history cannot know everything about an era or topic. Bingham does an excellent job of explaining to the reader the history of race in boxing in America and, just as important, he bookmarks events in Ali’s story with the world events that shape it.
This is not the story reported in the newspapers and on network news. Bingham is a friend of Ali and worked as his photographer for a time so he has access to details that the media did not know or left out. There is some pro Ali bias, however, as any historian knows, everything written has a bias. In the 1960s media was more biased against Ali than Bingham is for him. In my opinion this helps level the field. As American writer Budd Schulberg observed in the early 1970s, if you knew someone’s opinion of Ali, you knew where that person stood on half a dozen other issues. “Never before in this ideological sense had there been a champion of the world. Never before a champion fighting for millions of people of the United States against the government of the United States.”
What I found most interesting was that Ali failed the military aptitude test, twice, the second time under observation by a military appointed psychiatrist who testified that Ali made an honest effort to answer the questions. It is obvious to anyone who has heard or read Ali that he is a brilliant orator. His poetry and his off the cuff eloquence is legendary. That he had such problems with math brings up the question did his school fail their brilliant boxing champion or, as one of his teachers speculated, does he struggle with a learning disability which, in the 1950s would have been a mystery to everyone. When it shown that Ali did not meet the standards the Pentagon lowered the required score for induction into the military from 30 to 15. Ali’s score was 16.
My only disappointment with the book is that it is not better documented. That is not the fault of the book, it is meant to be popular, not scholarly, history and the documentation is acceptable for popular history, but is it wrong to hope for more? Regardless of your opinion on Ali and the draft I think that you will find this book as entertaining as it is enlightening.