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Original Issue

Books Deflating the myth of Muhammad Ali by recounting his rivalry with Joe Frazier

Ghosts of Manila
by Mark Kram/HarperCollins, $25

By now Muhammad Ali has become an inescapable part of our
history, an ideological scamp who somehow shepherded us through
an era of vast social change. That he was finally right is
confirmed not only by his enduring celebrity but also by his
heartfelt popularity. Feel-good moment of the last millennium:
Ali, shaken by Parkinson's disease, steadies his hand to light
the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The world wipes
away a tear.

Kram, a writer for this magazine during Ali's glory years, is
dismayed by this sappy coronation, wondering how it jibes with
the careless, cruel and not particularly courageous (outside the
ring) Ali he knew. This book, subtitled The Fateful Blood Feud
Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, unspools through the
author's account of the three remarkable fights between the two
boxers. Kram asserts that sport's "stenographers" have done
history a series of disservices in their belated hero worship of
Ali. They have done Ali himself a disservice, elevating him to
labored sainthood when popularity alone was plenty. Certainly
they have slighted the stolid and bewildered Frazier, whose
nobility in these three bouts has been reduced to bitter

This book, then, is a corrective, cranky at times but still
persuasive. Kram's restoration of Frazier's legend is especially
welcome. History has shown Frazier to be unrepentant, fiercely
maintaining his feud with Ali while the world sides with the
now-wobbling icon. Frazier just doesn't get it. Still, as Kram
details their rivalry (the actual fight accounts are as fresh as
today's news), which Ali unnecessarily made mean-spirited, it is
Frazier who becomes the sympathetic figure. Here you have
Frazier, who had been supportive of Ali during his exile,
enduring shouts of "Gorilla!" Frazier is surprised and newly
stung at each of Ali's increasingly cruel characterizations. "He
don't know how this hurts my kids," Frazier pleads at one point.

Yet, for all the revision, Ali still looms large. Kram punctures
the balloon, convincing us in sometimes sad and sometimes
hilarious detail that "seldom has a public figure of such
superficial depth been more wrongly perceived." However, even
Kram, so comically indifferent to Ali's superstardom that the
bemused fighter seemed to adopt him as a kind of pet during their
years together, cannot dodge the lingering charisma. Frazier
could not destroy Ali with those brutal left hooks, and Kram
cannot level him even with the truth. No matter what, after all
these years, Ali remains standing.