Essential Books on Muhammad Ali
There are countless books on Muhammad Ali, and it comes with good reason, he was a professional boxer and activist who is regarded as one of the most significant sports figures of the 20th century and frequently ranked as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.
“Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s most consequential athletes to the height of his craft, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
Thirty years after he burst onto the scene as a gold medal light-heavyweight at the Rome Olympics, Muhammad Ali is still a magical figure. His accomplishments in the ring were the stuff of legend – the two fights with Sonny Liston, when he proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and proved he was; the three epic wars against Joe Frazier; the stunning victory over George Foreman in Zaire; and the shocking loss and final win that made him the first man to win back the heavyweight crown twice, fourteen years after he had first claimed it.
Ali’s life has been played out as much on the front pages as on the sports pages. With brilliant immediacy and unprecedented candor, bestselling author Thomas Hauser recreates this extraordinary man.
King of the World by David Remnick
On the night in 1964 that Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) stepped into the ring with Sonny Liston, he was widely regarded as an irritating freak who danced and talked way too much. Six rounds later Ali was not only the new world heavyweight boxing champion: He was “a new kind of black man” who would shortly transform America’s racial politics, its popular culture, and its notions of heroism.
In charting Ali’s rise from the gyms of Louisville, Kentucky, to his epochal fights against Liston and Floyd Patterson, Remnick creates a canvas of unparalleled richness. He gives us empathetic portraits of wisecracking sportswriters and bone-breaking mobsters; of the baleful Liston and the haunted Patterson; of an audacious Norman Mailer and an enigmatic Malcolm X. Most of all, King of the World does justice to the speed, grace, courage, humor, and ebullience of one of the greatest athletes and irresistibly dynamic personalities of our time.
Blood Brothers by Randy Roberts
In 1962, boxing writers and fans considered Cassius Clay an obnoxious self-promoter, and few believed that he would become the heavyweight champion of the world. But Malcolm X, the most famous minister in the Nation of Islam, saw the potential in Clay, not just for boxing greatness, but as a means of spreading the Nation’s message. The two became fast friends, keeping their interactions secret from the press for fear of jeopardizing Clay’s career. Clay began living a double life – a patriotic “good negro” in public, and a radical reformer behind the scenes. Soon, however, their friendship would sour, with disastrous and far-reaching consequences.
Based on previously untapped sources, from Malcolm’s personal papers to FBI records, Blood Brothers is the first book to offer an in-depth portrait of this complex bond. An extraordinary narrative of love and deep affection, as well as deceit, betrayal, and violence, this story is a window into the public and private lives of two of our greatest national icons, and the tumultuous period in American history that they helped to shape.
The Fight by Norman Mailer
In 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaïre, two African American boxers were paid five million dollars apiece to fight each other. One was Muhammad Ali, the aging but irrepressible “professor of boxing.” The other was George Foreman, who was as taciturn as Ali was voluble. Observing them was Norman Mailer, a commentator of unparalleled energy, acumen, and audacity.
Whether he is analyzing the fighters’ moves, interpreting their characters, or weighing their competing claims on the African and American souls, Mailer’s grasp of the titanic battle’s feints and stratagems – and his sensitivity to their deeper symbolism – makes this book a masterpiece of the literature of sport.
Sting Like a Bee by Leigh Montville
Muhammad Ali, in the late 1960s, was young, successful, brash, and hugely admired – but with some reservations. He was bombastic and cocky in a way that captured the imagination of America, but also drew its detractors. He was a bold young African American in an era when few people were as outspoken. He renounced his name – Cassius Clay – as being his “slave name,” and joined the Nation of Islam, renaming himself Muhammad Ali. And finally in 1966, after being drafted, he refused to join the military for religious and conscientious reasons, triggering a fight that was larger than any of his bouts in the ring.
What followed was a period of legal battles, of cultural obsession, and in some ways of being the very embodiment of the civil rights movement. This necessary addition to the ever-growing index of books on Muhammad Ali brilliantly assembles all the boxing, the charisma, the cultural and political shifting tides, and ultimately the enormous waft of entertainment that always surrounded the man.
At Home with Muhammad Ali by Hana Ali
Dedicated to preserving his family’s unique history, Ali began recording a series of audio diaries in the 1970s, which his daughter later inherited. Through these private tapes, as well as personal journals, love letters, cherished memories, and many never-before-seen photographs, she reveals a complex man devoted to keeping all nine of his children united, and to helping others.
Hana gives us a privileged glimpse inside the Ali home, sharing the everyday adventures her family experienced – all so “normal,” with visitors such as Clint Eastwood and John Travolta dropping by. She shares the joy and laughter, the hardship and pain, and, most importantly, the dedication and love that has bonded them.
The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali
Growing up in the South, surrounded by racial bigotry and discrimination, Ali fought not just for a living, but also for respect and rewards far more precious than money or glory. He was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and the BBC. Ali redefined what it meant to be an athlete by giving hope to millions around the world and inspiring us all to fight for what is important to us.
This is a multifaceted portrait of Muhammad Ali only he could render: sports legend; unapologetic anti-war advocate; outrageous showman and gracious goodwill ambassador; fighter, lover, poet, and provocateur; an irresistible force to be reckoned with.
Sound and Fury by Dave Kindred
Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell were must-see TV long before that phrase became ubiquitous. Individually interesting, together they were mesmerizing. They were profoundly different – young and old, black and white, a Muslim and a Jew, Ali barely literate and Cosell an editor of his university’s law review. Yet they had in common forces that made them unforgettable: both were, above all, performers who covered up their deep personal insecurities by demanding – loudly and often – public acclaim. Theirs was an extraordinary alliance that produced drama, comedy, controversy, and a mutual respect that helped shape both men’s lives.
Dave Kindred – uniquely equipped to tell the Ali-Cosell story after a decades-long intimate working relationship with both men – re-creates their unlikely connection in ways never before attempted. From their first meeting in 1962 through Ali’s controversial conversion to Islam and refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army (the right for him to do both was publicly defended by Cosell), Kindred explores both the heroics that created the men’s upward trajectories and the demons that brought them to sadness in their later lives.
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram
When Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier in Manila for their third fight, their rivalry had spun out of control. The Ali-Frazier matchup had become a madness, inflamed by the media and the politics of race. When the “Thrilla in Manila” was over, one man was left with a ruin of a life; the other was battered to his soul.
Mark Kram covered that fight for Sports Illustrated in an award-winning article. Now his riveting book reappraises the boxers – who they are and who they were. And in a voice as powerful as a heavyweight punch, Kram explodes the myths surrounding each fighter, particularly Ali. A controversial, no-holds-barred account, Ghosts of Manila ranks with the finest boxing books ever written.
Facing Ali by Stephen Brunt
Muhammad Ali cast a blinding light on his sport, on the tumultuous times in which he reigned as champion, and on all the people who surrounded him. That included the fighters brave enough to stand alone in the ring with the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.
Ali’s own story has been told often, but the tales of those who faced him have been mostly overlooked. For each, the moments alone in the ring with Ali changed their lives. Facing Ali tells the stories, in the fighters’ own words, of fifteen men from around the world – from famous names like Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Henry Cooper, to lesser lights like Tunney Hunsaker, Jergen Blin, and George Chuvalo.
The Fight of the Century by Michael Arkush
In this gem among books on Muhammad Ali, sportswriter Michael Arkush delves behind the scenes to explore the richly textured history and the ongoing impact of one of the most important sporting events of all time, a battle not only between two undefeated champions, but between two competing views of a nation still reeling from the turbulent 1960s.
Arkush draws from interviews with Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee; his doctor, Ferdie Pacheco; and more than 100 others to examine how the fight, watched by more than 300 million viewers around the world, ushered in a new era of sports marketing. From then on, every game would be turned into an “event,” powered by over-the-top hype and carefully staged pageantry.
This sweeping real-life saga features insightful portraits of both fighters. The outspoken Ali, coming back to boxing after a three-and-a-half-year ban for evading the military draft, was already one of the best-known human beings on the planet – a hero to millions, though certainly a thorn in the side of America’s power structure. Frazier, by contrast, did not feel compelled to constantly weigh in on the political issues of his time, though he did refuse to call his opponent by his adopted Islamic name, instead referring to him as Cassius Clay.
The Soul of a Butterfly by Muhammad Ali
“During my boxing career, you did not see the real Muhammad Ali. You just saw a little boxing. You saw only a part of me. After I retired from boxing my true work began. I have embarked on a journey of love.”
So Muhammad Ali begins this spiritual memoir, his description of the values that have shaped and sustained him and that continue to guide his life. In The Soul of a Butterfly the great champion takes readers on a spiritual journey through the seasons of life, from childhood to the present, and shares the beliefs that have served him well.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Muhammad Ali, check out our list of The 10 Best Books on Malcolm X!