Manila: where Ali should have fought his last; and how his later years might have been if he had

It might seem an odd choice as it is certainly no Ali book that either celebrates or holds up The Greatest’s legend as a God-like figure who is deservedly idolised the world over, but Mark Kram’s superb book, Ghosts of Manila has been paid another visit during this, the time of Ali”s passing. The sad news has upset millions, and by way of tribute a far less scrutinising book would make far more a palatable read for the Ali worshippers (including me).

But the 2001 publication (one that has to be read whether you prefer Ali or the fierce rival he has now joined) does pay worthy tribute to Ali the great, incomparable boxer – and this Ali is all I have ever really been interested in (forget all that politics stuff). Kram lays into Ali’s “latter day beautification,” as it says on the jacket of his masterpiece, but the former S.I writer also uses his quite exceptional writing skill to big up Ali’s boxing genius.

Kram writes how Ali, after going through the sheer hell of Manila and that third war with Joe Frazier, should have – he himself being sure he would have – retired. This line of thinking is of course nothing new, but Kram’s vivid description of the horrifying health problems Ali was plagued with after Manila makes a reader wish a time machine could be located so as to go back and somehow force Ali to quit and stay quit in late 1975.

The thought is not an easy one, but how would Ali’s life have been in his later years had he avoided all the blows that came after he had won his most savage trilogy. Think of it, no bombs from the lethal Earnie Shavers, no beating from Larry Holmes, no scraping by Ken Norton and taking shots from a raw Leon Spinks.

Who knows, maybe the damage, irreparable damage, had been done to Ali that sweltering day in The Philippines. But Kram, in a book many have called THE Ali book, sure makes us wonder how things could have, maybe should have, been different.

So why did Ali, a smart guy who vowed he would “never end up like Joe Louis,” carry on, astonishingly, for six years after Manila? Ego? Check. The endless need for money? Check. But, perhaps most base, the fact that Ali did not know what else to do with his life but box. When you are truly excellent at something, whatever it may be, it must be agony to know you have to stop doing it.