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The Zen Of Muhammad Ali: and Other Obsessions was written by Davis Miller and first published in 2002. I'm not too familiar with Miller but I believe he has written articles for Sports Illustrated and some other publications. Miller also published books about Ali and Bruce Lee and this is like a sort of compilation of those themes and musings. A book about fighting - both in the ring and in one's personal struggles. The first part of the book is about his thoughts and encounters relating to Ali and then he moves onto articles about the greatest of all post-Ali boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and martial arts superstar Bruce Lee. He ends the book with a few pieces of fiction and more personal articles about his own life (pleasant enough but not always completely essential). You should be aware though that if you buy this expecting it to be a book solely about Muhammad Ali you will be disappointed. The Ali stuff is certainly fascinating at times though and this alone makes the collection worth a look. The Zen Of Muhammad Ali: and Other Obsessions is about how these famous names inspired the author as much as anything and the effect they had on his life. He says he has been an Ali fan since the sixties and was a kickboxer in his youth through his love of Ali and Bruce Lee. This sideline led to perhaps the most unforgettable experience of his life when in 1975 he visited Deer Lake (Ali's famous remote former training camp in Pennsylvania) and through some connection he had with Ali's trainer was actually permitted to get into the ring and spar with the great man. Ali was obviously taking it easy on him but nonetheless Miller recalls being dazed by one of Ali's punches and noted how the boxer's eyes were like electric marbles in the ring as he evaded any punches that came his way like he had some sort of inbuilt human radar system. At its very best, the book reminds one of Norman Mailer's The Fight with its ability to take the reader insider the world of Muhammad Ali and give you an idea of what it might have been like to have encountered him.
The Ali pieces at the beginning of the book are the most interesting and moving I think. One of the themes of the book is that we should not treat our heroes as saints because we diminish their humanity and individuality. All people are flawed in some way and this is something we should always remember and sometimes even embrace. It helps us to understand who they are. The most poignant essay has the author going to visit Ali at his farm in Michigan in the late eighties. He hasn't met Ali for many years and Ali is now in his late forties and suffering from the effects of Parkinson's Syndrome. The author notes how his hands tremor, he is sometimes a bit unsteady on his feet, and that his voice is more of a whisper these days. Ali doesn't remember Miller at all - not because of the Parkinsons but simply because he meets so many people in his life he can't possibly remember all the faces and names. What I love about this piece is the portrait it paints of Ali and how it makes us feel even more affection for him. Miller has forgotten what a huge man Ali is and how he seems to fill an entire doorframe when he first sees him. Ali is sort of like God with a custard pie up his sleeve to Miller. He is possibly the most famous person in the world and Miller has come to pay his awed respects but the first thing Ali does is perform a series of magic tricks for him. One of the amusing and heartwarming things about this profile is that Ali's mother Odessa Clay was still alive at the time and present at the farm too, as was Ali's brother Raham. Because Ali was never one to turn down a guest or visitor (when his illness got worse in subsequent years this obviously had to change) his farm practically had an open door policy where if you turned up the great man would find some time for you and sign anything you wanted to have signed.
Ali's mother and brother are so used by now to strangers arriving at the house to see Ali that they don't bat an eyelid when the author turns up. Raham offers him a can of pop and when Ali temporarily goes upstairs, Ali's mother (who he tells us is watching the Oprah Winfrey Show), pats him gently on the arm and says that she's sure Ali will back soon. It's just a very sweet picture of life at Ali's house when his mother was still around and his illness wasn't as bad as it would become. Ali even asks the writer to stay for dinner. "I've been everywhere in the world, seen everything, had everything a man can have. Don't none of it mean nothin'.... The only thing that matters is submitting to the will of God," says Ali. The author is always concerned about portraying Ali as a human being though and presents a mildly provocative essay on the boxer titled The Ying and the Yang of Muhammad Ali in the book. One of his points is that just as those around Ali were partly culpable in him boxing for far too long because they were on a big gravy train they wanted to keep going those around Ali now (or at the time of the book anyway) are also guilty of another form of exploitation with the neverending Ali industry that has sprouted up in the years since he retired. Books, documentaries, poems, films, magazine articles, memorabilia, etc. They have pushed Ali into retrospective sainthood for their own personal gain when the author feels that a more objective and balanced approach to great sporting figures would be more preferable. We learn that at some point the author lost contact with Ali. He telephoned the farm and Ali's wife Lonnie was suddenly distant and not very interested in speaking to him. He'd offended them in some way, presumably with something he wrote.
One interesting theme in the book is why boxers always carry on for too long even when they have nothing more to prove and more money than they could ever spend. The answer according to the author and Sugar Ray Leonard is simple. They feel far more alive in a boxing ring than they do anywhere else. As Sugar Ray Leonard says, how do you ever replicate the rush of participating in a huge boxing match in front of thousands of people? It's impossible. It's why when he was forced to retire at the age of 26 with a detached retina he abused alcohol and cocaine to try and fill that void. It's also why he made an extraordinary comeback at the age of 30 having fought only once in four years. In one of the most miraculous feats in boxing history, Leonard came back to beat the formidable world middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. Leonard knew he had to clean up his life and get back on track. The only way he knew how was boxing. He needed the ultimate rush of a big fight. The connection between Ali, Leonard and Lee is that that they all inspired the author and even each other on occasion. "I'm just a fighter. That's all. If you want to know about greatness, watch Muhammad Ali. Watch people around Ali. If you put him in a hall of people with Castro and Gorbachev, everybody'd flock to Ali. That's greatness," says Leonard. Leonard studied both Ali and Bruce Lee avidly growing up just as the author did. Miller tells us he went from being a weakling at school to the "karate kid" after being inspired by Lee and he would try and throw Ali's "cobra jab" while practicing in front of the mirror. Just to complete the arc, Bruce Lee would study film of boxers like Ali and Willie Pep when he was looking for new techniques.
The articles on Leonard and Lee are very readable and interesting although these are two figures that will always remain vaguely ephemeral, especially Bruce Lee. You won't learn too much that is new here if you know boxing and have read Lee biographies but this particular insight is always engaging and more admirable for being balanced and honest. The author's pieces about his own life are certainly moving at times and well written but I probably preferred the pieces about Ali and Leonard to be honest. This book is not quite essential but it is very readable and likeable and has a smattering of nice photographs. It only runs to 176 pages though. At the time of writing you can buy The Zen Of Muhammad Ali: and Other Obsessions new for £10 or used for next to nothing.
Through a brilliant collection of essays, Miller grounds American culture's ambitions and dreams, uncovering the frailties and failings of those who have become the gods of his generation along the way. The result is not a depressingly harsh reality check, but a poignant personal view of the American Dream that seems to make the philosophy feel that much more accessible.
This was my first David Miller book. I have always been interested in modern iconography and like the majority of the western world am fascinated by Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee. I bought "The Zen of Muhammad Ali" purely on face value. It was short and had an interesting title, which, in my mind, made it stand out amongst the rest of the heavily illustrated Ali merchandise currently being sold off the back of the Columbia Pictures/Michael Mann "Ali" film.
What I discovered was a deep, addictive read that I could relate to. Like me, Miller had ambitions on being a successful martial artist and author, but was prepared to learn from the lessons life taught him. He has his heroes and was fortunate enough to get to know two of them, Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Upon discovering their human sides and Bruce Lee's too, he does not then fall into the common media trap of ruthlessly dissecting them, but instead holds a mirror up to himself and those who decide to propagate the mythology of these figures. He makes a sound argument that through pushing these figures as modern-day gods and adding falsities to their lives devalues them as human beings. This is examined in full in his Bruce Lee essay in the book, "Bruce Lee, American."
After reading his four essays on his time with Ali, two on Sugar Ray Leonard and his one on Bruce Lee, I felt a better understanding and level of respect for these celebrities. I came from a showbusiness background myself and have seen first hand how harsh and seemingly unfair the media can be in their attempts to tell the "truth". Therefore, it was refreshing to see that Miller's frankness lacks the usual arrogant and condescending attitude too often seen in tabloids and unauthorised biographies. Instead he writes always with a close examination of his own mortality and often, by use of self-comparison, further shows why these great men truly are "great." This is never more evident than in his article "Wanting to Whup Sugar Ray."
The third part of the book, entitled "Personal Struggles", appeared, at my first glance at the contents page, to be a disappointing anti-climax. This could not be further from the truth and is in fact my personal favourite. The section starts with an inspired fictional short story and then follows on with real-life accounts of his life, which really touch upon the American Dream philosophy I spoke about earlier. These essays are sometimes sad, sometimes optimistic and always very human. Not being American, I found Davis Miller's work to be a warm and humble introduction to the culture he grew up in. Many can learn from his honest and gentle approach to the human spirit and the life it helps create.
*From my Amazon review*