Alan Hubbard

More books have been written about Muhammad Ali than any other sports figure in history.

I have lost count of the tomes of his life and times that occupy my bookshelves. Indeed, they could fill a small library of their own. 

Some are hastily cobbled together pot boilers, others great literary works worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. But none have been quite as revealing as the first to be published since his death 15 months ago.

Fittingly Ali-A Life by esteemed American author Jonathan Eig coincides with the anniversary of the greatest fight of his career, and arguably the most bizarre sporting event of all time, The Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman 43-years-ago.

Not that this is the focal point. Indeed, none of Ali's memorable ring combats are.

Rather it is a compellingly incisive portrait of sport's most celebrated figure and to say it is warts and all is an understatement.

This is indeed the darker side of Ali, one of which the world may have been aware of but conveniently overlooked.

Some of its 500 pages will make disquieting reading but such is the indelible allure of Ali that I doubt if it will diminish the lingering affection in which his memory is held. Nor should it.

A "warts and all" book on Muhammad Ali has been released ©Getty Images

It is far from a hagiography, the highlight of which is a chapter devoted to his phenomenal sexual appetite.

While it was no secret to those around him that Ali was addicted to sex, it has to be emphasised that he was no sexual predator as we have come to know the term today.

He never pestered or made improper advances. He had no need to to maul or molest, or make lewd, crude overtures. We are certainly not talking Harvey Weinstein here.

The "foxes" as he liked to call them simply fell at his feet - or queued to knock on his bedroom door.

He was the supreme swordsman, a sporting super-stud who made George Best and Tiger Woods seem like Trappist monks. A womaniser and unmitigated philanderer who wedded four and bedded hundreds more.

Which begs the question I have been asked many times - whether he was a big man in every sense, nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean?

Well, as someone who has been in his dressing room along with other writers, and seen him emerge naked from the shower I can testify that Ali's manhood was no big deal; a very average appendage. Mind you, it may have been a cold shower...

Obviously size wasn’t everything. Simply his libido.

Neither, apparently was Ali as great an artist in bed as he was in the boxing ring. His second wife Belinda reveals in the book that it was very much a case of slam, bam, thank you m'am...

Muhammad Ali with his wife Veronica at Heathrow Airport ©Getty Images
Muhammad Ali with his wife Veronica at Heathrow Airport ©Getty Images

Not that his virility was in question. He fathered nine children by two of his four wives and several more out of wedlock, making provision for them all...

As Eig writes: "Black women, white women, young women, old women, Hollywood actresses, chambermaids. Ali did not discriminate. Everyone close to the fighter knew his proclivities. His friends laughed about it."

Yet no woman has ever complained that Ali mistreated her sexually or made unwelcome advances. He never felt the need to chat up women. Though there were plenty who "pimped" for him.

Neither did he subscribe to the view, as do most fighters, that prolonged pre-fight abstinence from sex makes you stronger.

I recall that after the weigh-in at the Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier, we were chatting with Angelo Dundee when someone came up to whisper in his ear. The trainer shot off up to a gantry where, we learned later, he had discovered Ali "in flagrante" with a young lady from a news magazine.

Well that's one way of getting an exclusive interview I suppose.

It was in Manila that Ali's marriage to karate black belt Belinda finally broke up when, she heard he was parading model Veronica Porsche, later to be wife number three, as his girlfriend. She flew into a rage, trashed their hotel suite and left Ali with scratch marks on his face.

Belinda told Eig that Ali had "a dark and evil side".

Well, we knew he was no paragon and did not pretend to be.

Eig paints a complex portrait of Ali, illustrating his contradictions, both as a person and as a public figure.

Muhammad Ali was a known
Muhammad Ali was a known "womaniser" ©Getty Images

His religion railed against white people as "devils" yet he accepted the financial backing of the paternalistic white millionaires in the Louisville Sponsoring Group and he never denigrated a white opponent. He also had many white friends.

He won adoration, and riches and fame, but by the 1965 rematch with Sonny Liston, Eig surmises that Ali was the most hated man in America.

Eig also paints Ali's bouts with vivid detail. Describing a 1966 triumph over Ernie Terrell, he writes: "Ali had boxed beautifully, changing speed and direction like a kite, cracking jabs, digging hooks to the ribs, sliding away with a shuffle to survey the damage he'd done, and then cracking more jabs, moving in and out with no steady rhythm, no pattern. He was a revolutionary...with an innate style and virtuosity no-one would ever reproduce. He turned violence into craft like no heavyweight before or since."

Long before today's athletes took a knee on the field or stayed in the locker room during the singing of the American national anthem, Ali straddled the crossroads of sports and racial politics, capturing the world's attention. 

Ali's life was more complex than most other sports figures, and Eig's brilliant book is a brutally honest biography about a true champ, who, despite his many flaws, fought for equality and justice, and lit a torch that will never go out.

And he truly was a ladies' man in every sense.

Though today’s feminists may demur.