🥊’Muhammad Ali: Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness’ by Dave Hannigan (2022)

What more can be written about Muhammad Ali? Ali’s life has been documented time and again by great writers and filmmakers. However, one area that has always remained somewhat obscure is the period between the end of his boxing career and the moment in Atlanta when, fragile and shaking, he lit the Olympic flame reminding the world of his incomparable courage.

Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness documents Ali’s public life during these 15 years in compelling detail. Hannigan presents a vast number of incidents and anecdotes captured at the time or remembered by the participants. The volume of research is impressive with countless local, national and international reports quoted and long forgotten small events highlighted. It’s these local, low-key events which tell us so much about Ali because even the most routine appearance was made significant and memorable simply by Ali’s presence and charisma.

A few common threads emerge in the book – friends taking financial advantage of Ali’s name, Ali going above and beyond to make an event special, strangers being invited into his inner sanctum and remembering it for the rest of their lives, people breaking down when seeing his limitations and, above all, Ali making people laugh and smile.

The stories individually range from funny to sad and from the mundane to the remarkable. Taken together they provide fascinating insight into Ali’s unique fame, his charisma, and his declining health. What emerges is a portrait of a man who, already an icon, was deeply aware of the impact of his presence on others. Ali knew that any interaction with him was a memorable experience. He was motivated to continue to live a very public life – to use his unique fame for some greater purpose, even if at times that purpose was unclear, undefinable, or unachievable. For these reason, despite his declining health, he refused to hide away and continued to live a very public life even while all of the very things he was famous for – his speed, his speech, his sharpness – deserted him.

I really loved this book. Each individual story works as an interesting insight but the combination of so many together is powerful, fascinating, funny and heartbreaking. It’s a brilliant addition to the ever growing library of books on Ali.

Hannigan has written two previous books on Ali. The Big Fight examines his fight in Dublin against Al ‘Blue’ Lewis and wonderfully captures his impact and aura during his prime. Drama in the Bahamas recounts Ali’s heartbreaking final fight against Trevor Burbank in the Bahamas and captures the tragedy of the last years of his boxing career. Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness is another wonderful book which captures a very different, yet just as compelling, phase of Ali’s life.

Fifteen Rounds in the Wilderness is published by Pitch Publishing on 20 June 2022.

‘Bundini: Don’t Believe the Hype’ by Todd Snyder (2020)

My favourite book of the year. I’ve struggled to finish this review because I’m trying to capture the book and not just gush with praise. Bundini: Don’t Believe the Hype didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them away, and it deserves to be considered among the very best biographies.

Muhammad Ali is possibly the most written-about sports figure of all time. I’ve already written a post on the best books I’ve read on Ali. Throughout every book, film, documentary on Ali, Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown hovers in the background as a mysterious, often thinly drawn, character whose importance is undeniable but whose contribution, and very essence, appears unknowable. I’ve always been fascinated by Bundini yet unable to picture who he was and sort between differing depictions of a quasi-mystical sage and a drug addled thief.

Bundini is best know for penning the immortal line ‘floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee’. He was a corner man, a hype man, a philosopher, a friend, a confidant, a spiritual guide and a hundred other things for two of the greatest boxers of all time – Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. But none of that captures the unique contribution Bundini made to their careers and indeed the lives of those around him.

Trailer for the book

I’ve written this paragraph 5 times trying to capture my own take on Bundini but I think it’s best to leave it to George Foreman who the book quotes as saying ‘Bundini was the source of Muhammad Ali’s spirit’. Bundini was no saint and had plenty of flaws but he was a man full of love. He was one of those rare people who have an energy about them, who have charisma and colour and vibrancy. I am very much not that type of person myself but I am very drawn to those who bring a passion, a love and an uncontrollable energy to the world and those around them. That these gifts are often accompanied by demons, addictions and personal flaws makes them all the more compelling.

Snyder has done an incredible job in capturing Bundini. Both his magic and his flaws. The heart of the book is Bundini’s son, Drew ‘Timothy’ Brown, a man whose own life story merits a biography. As Synder sets out in the introduction, this book is a much the story of a father through his son’s eyes as it is an objective biography.

Patrick Green produced an excellent documentary based on the book available above on YouTube

Great biographies need both a compelling subject and the right biographer. Robert Caro’s masterful series of books on Lyndon Johnson would not have reached the same heights if not written by a writer with as a keen a fascination of the workings of power. The years Caro spent writing The Power Broker shaped his future work on LBJ.

Similarly, Snyder is the perfect person to capture Bundini’s life. An incredibly talented writer, the son of a boxing trainer, and a professor of rhetoric and hip-hop, it’s hard to think of a better background for exploring the life of a man who influenced the world’s best boxers with his words and spirit.

As an aside, the book also made me realise that Muhammad Ali’s old training camp has been opened to the public and is less than an hour drive from my in-laws in Pennsylvania. I absolutely cannot wait to visit!