The first time writer Davis Miller spent any time with his friend Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend autographed a copy of Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Photographs — and not just once, but at least 100 times. Ali went photo by photo, signing many with his Muslim name, some with his childhood name, Cassius Clay, and adding commentary to others. On one he wrote, “The man who named me”; on another, “Crazy”; on a famous knockout shot, “Get up Chump.” Miller will launch his own book, Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, at Malaprop’s Tuesday, Dec. 1.
The story of how Miller’s book came to be is one with many twists and turns. In 2004, while broke, the author sold that signed copy of Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Photographs to a collector for $35,000. With the money in hand, he fled Winston-Salem to start a new life in Asheville. Just before that, he had escaped from a Hong Kong kidnapping — it’s a story for another time, he says, and the subject of a future book — and made it back to North Carolina, only to face believable threats to himself and his family. So he sought the mountains and went into hiding.
“It changed my life hugely,” he says. “I went off the grid. No address anyone could find, no online life, no credit cards, no car in my name.”
From a wimpy, despondent kid in 1964, reeling from his mom’s death, to a frustrated, 30-something video store manager in 1988, unfulfilled and ready to break free and pursue a writing career, the writer was inspired many times by the charismatic boxer. Indirectly, Ali helped Miller again when his autographed book fetched enough money to start over in Asheville, and it was the Champ who brought him back up for air when, in 2009, the writer realized he was through with hiding.
“Finally, I said, ‘I can’t live in a foxhole anymore,'” Miller says. “‘I’ve just got to stand up and have a life.'”
Miller got up swinging. First he co-penned a successful opera, Approaching Ali, and now he’s written a similarly named memoir, both of which chronicle his abiding friendship with a living legend.
The memoir Approaching Ali is a collection of vignettes covering 27 years of friendship and even further back — some entries are written from Miller’s perspective as a teenager. It’s a return to public life for the author of The Tao of Muhammad Ali and The Tao of Bruce Lee — a man whose writing on Ali has garnered praise from none other than Maya Angelou. For Miller, the Champ lends him courage, and not just because he’s a talented athlete. What sets Ali apart, the writer says, is his uncompromising magnanimity.
“He’s an American mythological figure — he’s also an international mythological figure, and he’s in many ways regarded with even greater respect outside of this country,” Miller says. “Hundreds of millions of people adore Ali. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. I’ve traveled with him some, and it’s amazing to watch.”
As a boxer, Ali moved with uncommon grace and spoke in poetic boasts. Yet rather than put his name on the boxing world’s equivalent of Air Jordans, he changed his name, openly aligning himself with the Nation of Islam in a move that estranged many fans and backers. When he was drafted to fight in Vietnam, he refused, though it could have cost him his career.
“He always stood up,” Miller says. In 1996, Ali lit the Olympic torch at the Summer Games in Atlanta, one hand shaking with tremors from Parkinson’s. He has lived with the disease for four decades. Miller starts the count at a brutal 1975 match with Joe Frazier, though the medical diagnosis came in 1984. Most people would not have survived that long with Parkinson’s, Miller says, crediting the boxer’s sheer strength of will.
Through it, Ali carries himself with dignity, humor and gentleness. “He’s this uncompromisingly tender mountain of a man who just lets you inside his life,” Miller says. “He lights up around children and radars in on children in a way I’ve never seen another person do.” The writer has seen Ali pick up terminally ill kids, kiss them and hold them close with no concern for the often communicable diseases that afflict them.
If the Champ can stand up, so can Miller. Twelve years after his terrifying ordeal in Hong Kong, he’s resurfaced. The Approaching Ali opera and book are both out, and he has both an account of his kidnapping and a novel set in the “sweetly seedy strange little hippie hillbilly town” of Asheville in the works.
Ali may not last many more years, Miller admits, but the fighter’s power to inspire cannot die. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” the ailing boxer has told Miller dozens of times. “I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve had the life of 100 men. I’ve seen everything a man can see. I’ve done everything a man can do.”
WHAT: Book launch for Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts by Davis Miller
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m.