Sunni M. Khalid is a former foreign correspondent currently writing a book on modern Egypt.
In “Sting Like a Bee,” Leigh Montville focuses on a transformative five-year period in the life of Muhammad Ali when the heavyweight champion struggled as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War; lost his boxing license, forcing his exile from the sport; rejected his “slave name,” Cassius Clay; and pledged himself to the Nation of Islam under the name Muhammad Ali.
The book begins in 1966, two years after Ali snatched the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, and takes readers through the 1971 Supreme Court decision reversing his draft-dodging conviction. Montville does an excellent job of capturing the changing mood of the times, from the American public’s support of the Vietnam War, fear of the Nation of Islam and vilification of Ali to its gradual shift against the conflict and subsequent acceptance of Ali as a martyr and hero.
The author relies on a range of sources, including the vibrant black press of the time, with publications such as Ebony magazine and the Chicago Defender. The result is a balanced narrative that encompasses the civil rights movement, its Black Power offshoot and the growing antiwar movement. Montville delves into court documents and FBI files to recount Ali’s winding and often convoluted legal battle and appeal of his conviction.
Readers also get rare glimpses into Ali’s private life, much of which has previously been glossed over or ignored. The most valuable insights come from the champ’s second wife, Belinda Boyd, who changed her name to Khalilah Camacho-Ali. Montville conducted extensive interviews with Khalilah , who married Ali at age 17, shortly after he was stripped of his boxing license.
A compelling portrait emerges of Ali courting Camacho-Ali and behaving as a young husband. Through Camacho-Ali, Montville depicts Ali at a crossroads, facing the prospect of prison and trying to remain loyal to the dictates of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, while still pining to return to the ring. We see the couple driving across the country to Ali’s university speaking engagements, which supported him and his expanding family. In one surprising scene, Ali and Camacho-Ali stop for gas in rural Alabama and are treated to Southern hospitality when strangers give them boxes of fried chicken for their journey. Before they depart, Ali is asked by a star-struck group of hillbillies and rednecks to sign autographs on magazines and pieces of toilet paper. Camacho-Ali also provides an unflattering account of Ali’s marital infidelities after his return to boxing, including a tryst with a $40 prostitute in a New York hotel the day before his highly anticipated first title fight against Joe Frazier.
Aside from revealing some of Ali’s personal foibles, Montville shows how he began to evolve intellectually: He embraced the straitjacketed, quasi-religious doctrine of the Nation of Islam, which rejected not only the war in Vietnam but racial integration — stances that put Ali at odds with other members of the civil rights and antiwar movements.
Within a short time, however, the charismatic Ali began to express more original thoughts on the war, and he grew confident enough to not only engage in give-and-take with college students opposing his views but also to hold his own in a famous television debate with conservative intellectual William F. Buckley.
In the meantime, the exiled Ali hobnobbed with a who’s who of the most famous celebrities of the era and went club-hopping in limousines with singers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. The boxer also briefly starred in a Broadway play.
As revelatory as Montville’s book is, it has some shortcomings. While the author describes Ali’s devotion to the Nation of Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, he unearths no new ground on the inner workings of the movement. A deeper examination is warranted for the Nation of Islam’s influence on Ali’s decision to refuse induction into the Army.
Nonetheless, “Sting Like a Bee” is a valuable, indeed essential, addition to the growing library on Ali, offering a broader understanding of the enigma known as “the Greatest.”
By Leigh Montville
Doubleday. 354 pp. $30