Review: “Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971”

In December 1966, Howard Cosell opened a boxing press conference with a nod to the literary arts. “To my right is the author of a great new poem,” the sportscaster said. This was Muhammad Ali’s cue. He leaned into the microphone, pointed at his opponent and reeled off a series of rhymes. “I’m not here to brag,” he told Ernie Terrell, “but it’s your jaw I’m out to tag.”

Terrell responded by addressing the garrulous heavyweight champion as “Cassius Clay,” a name he’d forsaken when he converted to Islam almost three years earlier. This was a reliable way to incite Ali. Sure enough, he took a couple of halfhearted swings in Terrell’s direction. By now, the federal government was after Ali for refusing to serve in the military. His sport’s licensing agencies and a bunch of newspapers were gunning for him, too. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. had some harsh words. Ernie Terrell? Just add him to the list of those questioning Ali’s faith, honor and identity.

In “Sting Like a Bee,” Leigh Montville revisits the most controversial period of the fighter’s storied career. Ali, this book reminds us, is a tricky subject for any author bold enough to take him on. His eventful life means that even a middling effort will contain some amazing anecdotes. And yet, because so, so much has been written about him, fresh angles are hard to come by.

Broadly speaking, Montville hits a sweet spot with his quasi-biography. His portrait of Ali may be short on genuine revelations, but the longtime Sports Illustrated writer makes up for this with stylish prose and intriguing subplots. At its most insightful, “Sting Like a Bee” is a rejoinder to some of the gauzy coverage that followed Ali’s death in June. To watch last year’s TV tributes, you’d think Ali was “a postmodern Mother Teresa,” as Montville puts it. But he was way more complex than your average saint.

Ali first shook the American mainstream in 1964. He was 22 and had just taken the title from fearsome Sonny Liston when he announced his membership in the Nation of Islam. Like the organization’s leaders, the young Ali believed integration was a bad idea. “In the jungle,” he said, “lions are with lions and tigers with tigers…That’s human nature, too, to be with your own kind.”

This bugged a lot of people. No less a moral authority than Martin Luther King Jr. said the boxer had become “a champion of racial segregation and that is what we are fighting against.” His clash with King was a harbinger of an even greater crucible that awaited Ali beginning in 1966.

That February, the Selective Service designated him a 1-A potential draftee. How did Ali feel about this? For a start, he noted that sending him to Vietnam would deprive the government of considerable tax revenue: “Why are they so anxious to pay me $80 a month — me, who in two fights pays for six new jet planes?” More important, Ali added, he had a religious duty to abstain from military service. Muslims don’t fight in “wars unless they are declared by Allah himself,” he said. “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs.”

Americans were dying in Vietnam every day—almost 2,000 in 1965, and more than 6,000 the year after. In March 1966, 47 percent of those polled by Gallup aligned themselves with Washington’s Vietnam “hawks”; just 26 percent were with the “doves.” Against this backdrop, the reaction was predictable. Newspaper columnists likened Ali to Benedict Arnold and Hitler. The coverage was ceaseless and often tinged by racism.

“Ali was discussed as much as anyone on the planet,” Montville says. “He was part of arguments about race, religion, politics, war, and peace. Not to mention boxing. It was an unmatchable story.”

In the ensuing months, Ali was stripped of his championship, prevented from obtaining boxing licenses and indicted for refusing induction into the draft. This despite an investigation by Justice Department-appointed judge, who found that Ali’s faith-based opposition to military service was sincere — which should’ve qualified him for conscientious-objector status. In June 1967, an all-white jury deliberated for 21 minutes before convicting him. Ali was sentenced to a five-year prison term but remained free while his case was appealed.

Montville’s overview of the legal minutiae can be a bit leaden. In one chapter, he bombards the reader with page after page of raw court transcripts. But in other spots, his writing is alive with original storylines. He interviews a onetime ACLU researcher who spent dozens of hours in the New York State Athletic Commission’s basement, compiling a long list of the men with serious criminal records who’d been licensed to fight. This helped the ACLU establish that Ali, convicted of a nonviolent offense that was still under appeal, was being unfairly prevented from boxing. Ali secured a license to fight again in 1970.

Ali’s legal battle stretched into 1971, when his appeal of his conviction for draft evasion reached the Supreme Court. Though this part of the Ali saga has been told many times, Montville is still able to recreate some of the drama. A key courtroom moment occurred when Justice John Harlan asked U.S. Solicitor General Erwin Griswold if the government doubted the earnestness of Ali’s religious convictions. “No, Mr. Justice, we do not,” Griswold replied.

The court found in his favor, 8-0. “The rest of his life could now begin,” Montville writes. Hours after the ruling was made public, Ali said he just wanted to “be an ordinary citizen, go to the hardware store, cut the grass.” Instead, he fought for another decade.