There are no shortage of books about Muhammad Ali, arguably the most famous athlete in history. Ali has been covered by literary heavyweights like Norman Mailer, David Remnick and George Plimpton.
Now comes another entry to the list, “Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. The United States of America, 1966-1971.” Former Sports Illustrated writer Leigh Montville covers the tumultuous five-year period during which Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army all the way through the first historic fight with Joe Frazier.
It is hard to imagine reading anything new about Ali, but Montville has trained his sites on perhaps the most controversial — but perhaps least explored period of the champion’s life. This book is meticulously researched. Montville opens the first chapter writing through the perspective of a news reporter waiting with Ali as news of his draft status is imminent. Throughout this deep dive, he at times relies the people and the events on the periphery to help tell this story. It’s a nice touch.
The major fights of that time — such as wins over Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley — are thoroughly recounted. The events that occurred away from the ring, though, are what moves this book.
There is a chapter devoted to the FBI’s investigation into Ali, including FBI notes and court transcripts. The circumstances surrounding his quote, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs,” is covered and how variations of that quote were used by other activists and came to be part of Ali’s legend. The famous meeting between Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at the time) and other prominent black athletes was covered. Montville even quotes a Cleveland sports photographer, who describes how secretly the event had been planned.
One chapter explores the media’s coverage of Ali at the time. It recounts an odd appearance on the Joe Namath show as well as a television debate between Ali and conservative talk show host William F. Buckley on, “Firing Line.” In a nice touch, Montville quoted one of Buckley’s research assistants in this chapter. In another example of the author’s relentless pursuit of sources, he quotes the son of Judge Lawrence Grauman, the Kentucky circuit judge who ruled in favor of Ali’s request for conscientious objector status.
That ruling, of course, would be challenged by the Justice Department and overturned by the draft board. Thus setting into motion Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army. It cost Ali nearly three years of boxing career and millions of dollars in earnings.
When Ali died last June, he was remembered as an American icon, a revered champion and activist. But at the time, when he refused induction into the Army, Ali was harshly criticized. He was vilified far worse than former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As the country’s stance on the war shifted, Ali made his way back into the mainstream. And after his incredible boxing career resumed — he would win the title two more times after his exile — Ali had pretty much come full circle with the American public.
The inventory of Ali books is indeed long. But put this one on the short list.