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Holy Warrior : MUHAMMAD ALI: His Life and Times, By Thomas Hauser (Simon & Schuster: $24.95; 531 pp.)

June 16, 1991|Robert Lipsyte | Lipsyte covered Ali's early championship years for the New York Times. His forthcoming boxing novel is "The Brave."

Loving Muhammad Ali is easy. Now. That body, once the greatest, is a shambling bear, and that face, once the prettiest, is swollen and sweet. The Louisville Lip is almost buttoned. His words that terrorized the government of the '60s--"I ain't got nothing against them Viet Cong"--seem quaint. The three-time heavyweight champion of the world is a holy man now, quoting the Koran and passing out tracts. The thrill and the threat are gone.

But to forget what he was is to forget what we were. The "onliest boxer to be asked questions like a senator" defined his times and helped shape them. His fights, writes Thomas Hauser in "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times," were "about ideology at one extreme, and watching a loved one risk danger at the other."

For Hauser, Ali is clearly a loved one, and the overwhelming emotion in this rich and absorbing portrait is love. "I hope Muhammad likes me," says George Foreman, who lost his title to Ali in the "Rumble in the Jungle." Another former champion, Larry Holmes, says: "I'm prouder of sparring with him when he was young than I am of beating him when he was old."

In fact, with the exception of Joe Frazier, whose abiding hatred comes off the page like a left hook, the dazzling parade of ex-wives, former rivals, discarded servants, journalists, business colleagues, who move as briskly through this book as if it were a Ken Burns miniseries, can find only love, understanding and forgiveness for a man who, however briefly, became the center of their lives.

"I know my dad feels bad about not having watched us grow up," says Maryum Ali, now 23, who was in the third grade when her parents split up on the front pages. "And one thing I believe is that I'm truly blessed to have him as my father."

"Sometimes now I get mad at Ali," said the late Lana Shabazz, his cook. "We always thought that when he retired, he'd provide for us. . . . But I realize that God brought him special into the world to do what he did and be who he was, and Ali is what he's supposed to be."

Hauser, who also wrote the nonfiction book on which the film "Missing" was based, calls the present Ali a "benign venerated figure" and finds him basically pure of heart. Yet for all his celebratory tone, Hauser allows the dark threads to weave among the gold.

"I hated that man," says Frazier. "First two fights, he tried to make me a white man. Then he tried to make me a nigger. How would you like it if your kids came home from school crying, because everyone was calling their daddy a gorilla? . . . I'd like to fight Ali-Clay-whatever-his-name-is again tomorrow. . . . I still want to take him apart piece by piece and send him back to Jesus."

Frazier, a skilled and gallant champion, helped define Ali as a warrior through three of Ali's best fights.

"He brought out the best in me," says Ali, "so, I'm sorry Joe Frazier is mad at me. . . . And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me."

Hauser's format--eyewitnesses speaking, often for a page or more at a time with as little connective narrative as possible--is risky. The only coherence is Ali's chronology. There is no overlay of analysis. But Hauser's skill as a novelist gives the book a flow and drive that creates a delightful summer read, and his training as a lawyer offers a precision that creates a new foundation for all future Ali scholarship.

Here is everything you need to know, if not always everything you want to know (Ali is Hauser's contractual partner in the book) about Ali's sex life (prodigious, indiscreet, apparently only with black women), his finances (comfortable, but far from what they should be based on his earnings) and his health (Ali clearly is damaged, probably from too many punches, but his Parkinsonism can be controlled).

The descriptions of fights are mercifully brief, except when they shed light on character. Ali unleashed the Shuffle and a rare quick knockout to keep from dislodging the bullet still in Cleveland Williams' stomach. His attacks on Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell were acts of vicious cruelty.

As satisfying as the book is, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. and Muhammad Ali ("I was the only person in history famous under two names") still remains elusive. Readers must come to their own conclusions about why Ali always has seemed such an easy mark for hustlers (is he victim or saint?), why he converted to Islam when so many other African Americans joined the movement, and why he seems unable to have ever sustained a truly adult relationship.

But Ali is not yet 50, and based on his extraordinary life so far, who knows how he will yet evolve? Once, Muhammad Ali believed that the white man was created by an evil scientist named Yacub, and that only members of the Nation of Islam would be rescued from Armageddon by a giant spaceship.

"I don't believe in Mr. Yacub and the spaceship any more," says Ali now. "Hearts and souls have no color. I think he (Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam) was wrong when he talked about white devils, but part of what he did was make people feel it was good to be black. So I'm not apologizing for what I believed. I'm wiser now, but so are a lot of other people."

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