ūü•ä’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.

‘Tackled: The Class of ’92 Star Who Never Got to Graduate’ by Ben Thornley & Dan Poole (2018)

Ben Thornley was a professional footballer who played for the same Manchester United youth team as the fabled Class of ’92 – David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville etc.

With Beckham-esque looks and Giggs-esque skill, Thornley was tipped for greatness by many. However, a horror tackle in a reserve game, just weeks after his first team debut, severely damaged his knee and ultimately his chances of making it to the very top.  Thornley recovered and played for a number of years but was never able to fulfill his vast potential.

Tackled tells the story of Thornley’s life in football.¬† The book jumps back and forward between the time before his injury and the time afterwards.¬† The earlier periods are told through many voices including his family members the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes etc.¬† The later periods are told in a more orthodox autobiographical style.

The format works very well.  The book feels really genuine and the style captures the interaction among friends and family really well.   There is a lot of humour in the banter among friends and many of the anecdotes may not have been told to a more traditional biographer.

Thornley is pretty open about his own failings in particular his fondness for booze and his constant cheating on his partners.  At times the stories are a bit laddish Рand Thornley seems to relish the retelling of some of his less than polite behaviour.  However, the telling of his off-field life while a player is necessary to fully appreciate how difficult it must have been to come to terms with his reduced status in the game.

The attitude to booze is interesting.¬† Thornley is open about enjoying a drink but there isn’t a close look at whether he might have had addiction issues – overall the treatment of booze leans more to the “pints are great fun” direction (which they are) than the role booze likely played in hampering Ben to do as well as he possibly could post injury. I’m conscious I’ve just hit a year without a drink so my attention naturally more drawn to boozy stories.

Football wise, the book contains some interesting insights into the English game of the late 90’s.¬† In particular Thornley was fairly scathing of the short-lived Lilleshall model which saw the FA try to mimic the French Bluefontaine academy with very little success.¬† Most of all, it gives quite a lot of insight into the Man Utd set up at the time, with a particular focus on the youth coach Eric Harrison.

Thornley is not the first or last footballer to have his potential cut down by injury.¬† Thornley’s association to the famous Class of ‚Äô92 – that remarkable generation of players to come through the ranks at Man Utd at the same time – helps add some glamour and celebrity to the story.¬† There is something about the fact that the players have developed their own group brand annoys me no end, but it’s good to see one the less successful members able to cash in on it.

You might find yourself wondering why bother to read an autobiography by a player whose career highlight is winning an underage tournament.  But any sports book is never solely about the results on the pitch РThornley shows a different side of the game, the side of potential unfulfilled, of hopes dashed and the challenges of nonetheless building a life.  It is a very honest and candid account of the life of the superstar that never was.

Thornley comes across as a likeable guy (unless you were his ex girlfriend) who has matured and come to appreciate what he achieved rather than what he didn’t.¬†Overall¬†Tackled¬†is an enjoyable read and one that Man Utd fans in particular would enjoy.