Sting Like a Bee
Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971
By Leigh Montville
354 pp. $30
Sunni M. Khalid
During a transformative five-year period in the life of Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion struggled as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War; lost his boxing license, forcing his exile from the sport; rejected his "slave name," Cassius Clay; and pledged himself to the Nation of Islam as Muhammad Ali.
Sting Like a Bee begins in 1966, two years after Ali won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, and takes readers through the 1971 Supreme Court decision reversing Ali's draft-dodging conviction. Montville does an excellent job of capturing the changing mood of the times, from the American public's support of the war and vilification of Ali to its gradual shift against the conflict and subsequent acceptance of Ali.
Readers also get rare glimpses into Ali's private life, much of which has previously been glossed over or ignored. The most valuable insights come from the champ's second wife, Belinda Boyd, who changed her name to Khalilah Camacho-Ali. Montville conducted extensive interviews with Camacho-Ali, who married Ali at age 17.
A compelling portrait emerges of their courtship, and of Ali as a young husband. Through Camacho-Ali, Montville depicts Ali at a crossroads, facing the prospect of prison and trying to remain loyal to the dictates of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, while still pining to return to the ring. In one surprising scene, Ali and Camacho-Ali stop for gas in rural Alabama, and strangers give them boxes of fried chicken for their journey.
Montville shows how Ali began to evolve intellectually. He embraced the straitjacketed doctrine of the Nation of Islam, which rejected not only the Vietnam War but also racial integration - stances that put Ali at odds with others in the civil rights and antiwar movements. Soon, however, he began to express more original thoughts on the war. He also went club-hopping with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., and briefly starred in a Broadway play.
Though Montville describes Ali's devotion to the Nation of Islam, he unearths no new ground on the inner workings of the movement, or of its role in Ali's decision to refuse induction into the Army. Nonetheless, Sting Like a Bee is a valuable, indeed essential, addition to the growing library on Ali, offering a broader understanding of this enigma.
Sunni M. Khalid is a former foreign correspondent writing a book on modern Egypt. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.