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Oklahoman book review: 'Sting Like a Bee' by Leigh Montville

"Sting Like A Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. The United States of America, 1966-1971" by Leigh Montville (Doubleday, 335 pages, in stores)

Has there ever been a more controversial, intriguing and entertaining sports figure than Muhammad Ali?

As a white kid growing up in rural Oklahoma, I certainly had nothing in common with this black man from Louisville, Kentucky, but the cocky, bombastic boxer captivated me like he did much of the country. It was great theater.

I was oblivious to politics at the time. I was a kid who loved sports, and Muhammad Ali made me care about boxing.

I stayed glued to the black and white television in our living room the night of the first “Fight of the Century” between Ali and Joe Frazier to get round by round reports. I haven't cared as much about boxing since.

There already has been a library written about the life of Muhammad Ali, but Leigh Montville's new work, “Sting Like A Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971,” is an outstanding addition.

Montville, a former Sports Illustrated writer whose previous books on Ted Williams and Evel Knievel won critical acclaim, has penned another fascinating read about Ali's fight outside the ring against the United States government.

The book examines the five-year period of the heavyweight champion's life when he refused military service and was banned from boxing.

Montville provides intimate details of Ali's life, the people around him and the legal battles which ensued following his refusal of military service because of religious and conscientious reasons.

It's a complex story that must be told in the context of what was happening in America at the time: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the rise of the Nation of Islam and the Black Power movement.

After joining the Nation of Islam and renouncing his “slave name” of Cassius Clay, Ali's refusal to serve in Vietnam triggered numerous legal and political battles across the country.

He was scorned by many for being a conscientious objector and using racial rhetoric, but as the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, so did the U.S. government's attempt to prosecute him.

“Sting Like A Bee” may not change anyone's opinion of Ali, but it offers a broader understanding of the man and the influences around him.

If I had known then what I know now, I may have rooted for Frazier in that first fight, but nobody can deny that Muhammad Ali wasn't interesting.

So is Montville's book.

— Ed Godfrey, Staff Writer

Related Photos
<p>Muhammad Ali speaks to University of Oklahoma students during a visit on Feb. 21, 1972. [Oklahoman archive photo]</p>

Muhammad Ali speaks to University of Oklahoma students during a visit on Feb. 21, 1972. [Oklahoman archive photo]

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Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›

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