A book, a painting, a musical composition, a soufflé can often produce curious reactions in the mind of the creator. Tolstoy was plunged into melancholy when Anna Karenina was near completion. Always the perfectionist, Flaubert once expressed a desire to call in every copy of Madame Bovary and light a grand bonfire of repentance. Now, at the publication of THE GREATEST: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham (Random House, $10.95), the reaction by Ali should be as predictable as a Sam Peckinpah movie: Ali will give himself the National Book Award and present himself as the new king of American letters.
"I could fill three books," Ali said at the Frankfurt Book Fair, adding, "Just by talking this morning, I could fill yet another." Well, it took him a long time to "talk" this autobiography onto the printed page—six years, to be exact—and what he has finally produced is a quarter of a million dollars' worth of shameless self indulgence. That is what Random House is said to have paid for the book. Ali gives himself all the best of it, which is all right (from the money view) because that is what his legions expect. But as a book for the record, it is suspect—the truth for Ali has always been what he says it is. The chronology is exact, following a course from the early days in Louisville, through the lifting of his title, his return and on to his victory over George Foreman in Za√Øre.
By far the most effective chapter is one dealing with a drive Ali and Joe Frazier look from Philadelphia to New York. A tape recorder was put on, and they talked for a couple of hours on an August day in 1970:
Ali: But tell the truth, now, man. If you fought me, wouldn't you be scared?
December 8, 1975
Frazier: No, man. Honest to God.
Ali: You really wouldn't be scared!
Frazier: No kinda way.
Ali: I mean my fast left jab, and the way I dance.
Frazier: Nooooo! I'd get close to you. They talk about how fast you is moving away. But you gonna find out how fast I am moving in.
Ali: You remember that time you came to see me against Zora Folley? You was on your way up. You wanted to learn from me.
Frazier: We all have a time for learning.
Ali learned later about Frazier, and will learn much more in the long years ahead, and someday the real story of Muhammad Ali will be done—but not by him.