Mark Kram last spoke to Muhammad Ali -- a man he once knew well -- outside a hospital in South Carolina more than a decade ago. Ali was already in bad shape by then, his body ravaged by both his boxing career and the onset of Parkinson's disease, leaving him, in his own words, an "old man" before 50. That private glimpse of Ali brought no surprises for Kram, who had covered him in the ring.
It is the public face of Ali that has Kram confounded. Ali on the big screen, in the Oscar-winning documentary "When We Were Kings." Ali at the White House, receiving a medal from President Clinton for his humanitarian acts. Ali's face staring out from book covers -- books Kram couldn't bring himself to read -- that painted the man a hero. Ali clutching the Olympic torch in Atlanta, his hand shaking as the crowd roared its love.
Ali the legend, the myth, the cultural icon.
Ali the man whom Kram could no longer recognize.
"I grew weary of all the hagiography about Ali," Kram says. "I kept seeing this great social figure, mentioned next to Martin Luther King, and I said, 'This is wrong.' So I decided, why not do a book on the person I saw, put some flesh and blood on him."
That book -- "Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier"
-- arrived in bookstores last week and already
is generating controversy. Highly critical, often harsh and sometimes mean-spirited, it portrays an Ali who is ignorant and easily manipulated, who spews hate speech and tosses off cruel invective with a histrionic wave of his arms. It denudes a man who has come to stand as a social and political hero in popular culture.
And, as Kram expected, it is upsetting a few people. Thomas Hauser, Ali's official biographer, has posted a lengthy response to the book on the HouseofBoxing Web site. Kram, who is white, says he recently tuned into a local black talk radio station and heard himself being attacked as "a racist." (Butch McAdams, the WOL host, says he's not certain if those were his "exact words.") Lonnie Ali, Muhammad's wife and spokesperson, called Kram "a liar" in a telephone interview this week.
"Ali would be the first to tell you that he never wanted to be deified, to be a god," says Lonnie, who Kram alleges is taking advantage of Ali's image for financial gain. "A person's perception is their reality. Whatever Mark Kram perceives, or thinks he perceives, that's his reality. If the rest of society perceives Muhammad as a cultural icon, so be it."
Ring of Controversy "It's like this agreed-upon pop memory, and any confrontation of it invites a lot of criticism," Kram says over lunch at the Palm, which is only a short trip from his home on upper Connecticut Avenue. "To disrupt the myth is to welcome public censure."
A boxing writer at Sports Illustrated for 11 years, Kram is a quiet man, but still a little like so many of the characters who populate the boxing world: colorful, fascinating, brilliant at his craft -- in his case, the ability to immortalize sport in poetic, almost lyrical prose -- and sometimes willing to take a little poetic license with his own biography. White-haired and wearing blue-rimmed glasses, Kram says this is his first book, though a quick check reveals he wrote a novel, "Miles to Go," in 1982. He won't give his age, except to say he's in his "early sixties" (he's actually 68). He was fired from Sports Illustrated for entering into a financial arrangement with boxing promoter Don King, about whom Kram had written for the magazine.
"All you have to do is read my work on Don King -- I was highly critical of him," says Kram, who calls the decision "absolutely political" and claims all he did was contract with King to write a movie treatment. (After leaving Sports Illustrated, Kram made his living writing screenplays for Hollywood; several sold but none was ever produced.)
Baltimore-born and raised, Kram went to the University of Georgia on a baseball scholarship, dropped out after a month, and was drafted into the military in 1953. He returned and played minor-league baseball until the day he was beaned by a pitch. After that, Kram got a job at the Baltimore Sun in the sports department, which eventually led to his gig at SI.
At Sports Illustrated, Kram covered Ali during an era when reporters had almost unending access to the fighters, able to eat with them, travel with them, hang around with them in the locker room. He covered the three legendary Ali-Frazier fights, and his article on the third of those, the "Thrilla in Manila," is considered by many to be one of the greatest sports magazine stories of all time.
"It was just stunningly, beautifully written," says Pete Bonventre, then a boxing writer for Newsweek and now the executive editor of Entertainment Weekly. "Nobody could have written it better than him. . . . Mark is a beautiful writer. It's like playing a violin."
The Man Behind the Fight Written in Kram's haunting, eloquent style, "Ghosts" is a narrative rather than a biography, based on Kram's recollections rather than interviews or new reporting, and filled with illuminating firsthand anecdotes. But the book does not dance or bob or weave, like Ali. It comes straight at you, haymaker after haymaker, like Frazier in his prime.
In it, Kram refers to Ali as a "useful idiot" and "near the moronic level." "Seldom," he writes, "has a figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived."
He diminishes Ali's import as a pivotal outspoken black athlete by going on to describe his influence in sport today "as seen in the blaring, unending marketing of self, the cheap acting out of performers, the crassness of player interactions."
In the introduction, Kram writes: "Today, such are the times, [Ali] would be looked upon as a contaminate, a chronic user of hate language and a sexual profligate."
At times, it almost seems as if he despises the man.
"I can see why people think that, but there is a lot of love in that book," Kram says. "He has all the problems that human nature gives us. He's not a museum figure. He's the greatest fighter in history. Period. Why isn't that enough? Why does he need to be more?"
Because he is, explains Hauser, who wrote Ali's official biography, "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times."
"I disagree with Mark Kram's thesis that Ali was not an important social or political figure," Hauser says.
Both Hauser and Jerry Izenberg, a longtime boxing writer and current columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, cite Ali's decision to shun the draft -- a decision they both say he made with conviction -- as evidence of his heroism. In doing so, Ali risked jail, lost his title and his opportunity to box, and wound up broke. He was a publicly hated figure.
Kram even belittles that antiwar decision, though, and depicts Ali as a scared and confused young man who was "played like a harp" by the Nation of Islam.
Izenberg, who notes he has only been briefed on Kram's book, defends Kram's right to write about Ali's foibles. He just hopes people balance them against the older, matured Ali.
"Ali can't defend himself and he doesn't need to defend himself," Izenberg says. "This is only a piece of his life. You have to ask two questions: Is what Mark Kram wrote true? To me, it sounds like most of it is. But you also have to ask yourself: Does it stand for the whole man?"
No, Hauser says. But he, too, believes that Ali's image has been cleaned up.
"He's been sanitized," Hauser says, going on to cite several examples in popular culture. "And to appreciate what Ali meant in the context of his times . . . you have to understand all the hard edges."
Those hard edges include Ali's cruel attacks on Frazier, whom he called an "Uncle Tom" and a "gorilla," and his loyalty to the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad, who later would repudiate Ali when he returned to the ring. Ali eventually became an orthodox Muslim, and remains so today.
"A hero is never manipulated," Kram says. "A hero breaks from the normal ranks. He'd certainly never be a member of a cult that fomented racism toward whites. [Ali] could be hateful."
And he could inspire.
"No one thinks Muhammad Ali is a perfect person, but I think he has been a hero for a lot of reasons," McAdams says. "Beyond his ability to box -- on his issues and his stance on social points. Here's a guy who gave up the peak years of his boxing career because of what he stood for. This is someone who would always take a stance on issues -- which is something you don't see from athletes these days."
McAdams attacked Kram on the air after reading some remarks he made to CityPaper that described Ali as "the devil" and contended that Ali race-baited Frazier, turning their rivalry into a contest over which fighter was "more black."
"I felt he used some pretty strong words," says McAdams. "What gives Mark Kram the right to say who is blacker than whom?"
The Last Word Kram's book is, as the title indicates, the story of both Ali and Frazier, whom he portrays as virtually destroyed by Ali, left bitterly angry and resentful. That characterization will not draw much rebuke -- Frazier's public statements over the years bear it out. In a telephone interview from Philadelphia this week, Frazier at first insists that "all is said and done" and he wants to "bury the hatchet." Then he goes on a diatribe about how God has punished Ali with Parkinson's.
"He said, 'I am the greatest,' and there is only one great: The Lord," Frazier says. "So the way the Lord got him back was he touched him, quieted him."
The bitterness laces through Frazier's words as he wanders from talk of forgiveness to talk of disappointment over the apology that has never come and, yes, amazement at how Ali has captured the heart of the public.
"People aren't blind to the things he's done," Frazier says. "He didn't hide anything. How can this be?"
Perhaps Kram found his own answer in the cultish nature of boxing, where, he writes, "the man who wore the title belt was viewed as someone who had attained high office, and his residence was in the mythic and tribal part of us."
Ali seems to have never left that place. Both those who adore him and those who despise him find the enormity of his presence difficult to release.
"Whatever you might have thought of him then," Kram writes in one of his softer moments, "you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again."