Skip to content

7 Books Celebrating Muhammad Ali's Fighting Spirit

"Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee"

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • October 30, 2020

The Greatest

The man who has no imagination has no wings.

One Night in Miami is a new movie set to be released on December 25. The much-touted film directed by Regina King imagines the details of the night of February 25, 1964, when four illustrious black men—Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Muhammad Ali—gathered to celebrate Ali's surprise title win over Sonny Liston. Malcolm X was assassinated almost exactly one year later.

The renowned Muslim minister and civil rights leader was known to be an important mentor to Ali, introducing him to the Nation of Islam. He also encouraged the younger man's boxing career saying that Allah would guide him in the ring. Ali's emerging role as a racial justice activist was undoubtedly influenced by this relationship as well. David Remnick's excellent book King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero focuses on these early influences and transformation. For a more comprehensive biography of his life check out Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser.


I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., the young champion decided to start boxing when his bike was stolen at age twelve. Fuming, he told police officer and boxing coach Joe Martin that he was going to "whup" the thief. Martin responded that he'd better learn to box first. Shortly thereafter, Clay began his training and his amateur career took off, garnering numerous national titles. He exploded onto the public stage with a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics when he was eighteen years old. You can read about his splashy performance (along with many others from those games) in Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics that Changed the World by David Maraniss.


He's too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me!

Clay began his professional career that same year and continued to gain notoriety, not just for his wins, but also for his bold, outrageous persona. He was regarded as one of the fastest heavyweights of all time, as well as being a highly creative fighter. And at a time, when African-Americans were expected to be deferential in public, he was known for being brazen and provocative. He was famous for gleefully trash-talking his opponents and often free-styled with rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry. Ahead of his time, he has been credited as a progenitor of the hip-hop genre. In Facing Ali by Stephen Brunt, get the perspective from fifteen of the formidable fighters he faced.

In a major upset, Clay beat Sunny Liston to win the world heavyweight championship in 1964 at the age of twenty-two, becoming the youngest boxer to take the title from a reigning champ. Liston was an intimidating personality, a dominating fighter with a criminal past. Clay was not expected to win and, indeed, there were some tough moments. Nonetheless, his superior speed and mobility enabled him to elude many of Liston's blows, ultimately winning the fight.


Allah's the Arabic term for God. Stand up for God, fight for God, work for God and do the right thing, and go the right way, things will end up in your corner.

Clay attended his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1961. Intrigued, he continued to attend meetings, although he kept his involvement hidden from the public, concerned it could harm his boxing career. In 1962, he met Malcolm X, who soon became his spiritual mentor. Soon afterward, Nation of Islam members, including Malcolm X, were visible in his entourage.

Shortly after his win, Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey, a book he cowrote with his daughter Hana, he takes readers on his spiritual journey, from childhood to the present, and shares the beliefs that have served him well. He describes how his study of Islam helped him accept the changes in his life and brought him to a greater awareness of life's true purpose.


I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.

Muhammad Ali was right to worry that his career could be impacted by his personal beliefs. Many commentators and sports journalists refused to acknowledge his new name. One of the few who did so was the esteemed Howard Cosell, who eventually developed a close friendship with the fighter. Despite coming from vastly different backgrounds, the two had profound respect for one another and formed an extraordinary alliance. In Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fearful Friendship, sportswriter Dave Kindred, who worked closely with both men, recreates their unlikely connection

In 1967, when Ali, as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, refused to be drafted into the armed forces, he was indicted and convicted of draft evasion. He faced five years in prison, and was stripped of his boxing titles. Cosell publicly defended him and castigated officials who oversaw the champion's subsequent exile from the sport.


I've wrestled with alligators, I've tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail...I'm so mean, I make medicine sick.

During Ali's time of inactivity, as opposition to the war began to grow, he spoke at colleges across the nation, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating African-American pride and racial justice. All the while, he was working to have his conviction appealed and in 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction allowing him to resume his boxing career. But with nearly four years away from the sport, Ali had lost a period of peak performance as an athlete. His skills had noticeably eroded during his time in exile and many thought he might be past his prime.

But, in fact, some of his greatest fighting days were ahead. And he once again made history on this day in 1974 with his victory over then-champ George Foreman. The fight, known as The Rumble in the Jungle, has been called "arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century." It was watched by a record television audience of an estimated one billion viewers worldwide, becoming the world's most-watched live television broadcast at the time. Acclaimed author Norman Mailer brilliantly memorialized the event in The Fight.

Charismatic and controversial, bombastic and bodacious, Ali is widely considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time. And he shone beyond the ring as an activist, philanthropist, and spoken word artist. We found so many terrific books about the one-of-a-kind icon, we had to pick and choose. Hopefully you've enjoyed the chance to get to know him as much as we have.

For daily book recommendations, literary tidbits, and more, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

Leave a Comment

Copyright © 2022 Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Do Not Sell My Personal Information | Cookie Preferences | Accessibility Statement
ThriftBooks® and the ThriftBooks® logo are registered trademarks of Thrift Books Global, LLC
GoDaddy Verified and Secured