No doubt there were a vast number of troubled, insecure, undersized boys coming of age in the 1960s and '70s who looked to Muhammad Ali as a hero and inspiration. Mercifully only one, Davis Miller, has gone on to publish a book chronicling his obsession with the Greatest.
In his 306-page exercise in self-indulgence Miller, a 44-year-old freelance journalist, sometime kick boxer and one-time video-store manager, recounts in rambling detail his fixation on Ali—from childhood afternoons spent watching the champ's fights on TV to a chance encounter in Louisville in 1989 to repeated ingratiating visits with Ali and his family in recent years. "Many of the events that have defined my life have been related to Ali," writes Miller with heavyweight understatement.
Throughout this literary equivalent of a stalking, Miller weaves a sentimental autobiographical narrative. After giving up on professional kick boxing, he tells us, he decided to become a writer, "snatching every moment I could to dance the two-finger strut on the ancient typewriter my mother had used in secretarial school." The bulk of Miller's keyboard dancing has focused on Ali. Over the past few years he has published in several magazines a series of variations on the piece, "The Zen of Muhammad Ali," that eventually gave rise to this book.
In The Tao, Miller proclaims his intention "to propose a new Ali mythology" and to counteract accounts of the former champ's failing health. And he does offer recent views of Ali, still vibrant and alert, that provide an uplifting contrast to the prevailing doom and gloom. But most of these accounts are of private moments between Ali and Miller and, as Miller concedes in his author's note, "some chronology and numerous details have been changed for dramatic effect." Later in the book Miller says, "The shining details provided by my writer's imagination...are always more real than confirmable phenomena, than the 'facts.' "
A writer with that attitude is like a fighter who only shadowboxes. The combinations look good in the mirror, but they have no impact.