- Running with the Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship with Muhammad Ali by Tim Shanahan and Chuck Crisafulli
Tim Shanahan’s recent memoir of his friendship with Muhammad Ali, Running with the Champ, explores the later boxing career, personal life, and medical experiences of the heavyweight champion from the late 1970s up to the present. Although the author strives to avoid hagiographical treatments, Shanahan regularly falls into the traps of celebrity to describe the public version of Ali, even as he attempts to define the champion’s personal life beyond the ring. What the reader is left with is another biography of Ali told from a confidant who rarely offers unique opinions of the Louisville Lip. However, despite this lack of novelty, the story Shanahan tells is entertaining and often intellectually engaging. Readers are provided a tale of a champion unwilling to let go, even as Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, and Parkinson’s disease showed him that time had irretrievably passed. There is some originality here, but this memoir of a friendship based on philanthropic activity is habitually boilerplate.
Shanahan met Ali in 1975, after the champion had returned from the doldrums of Ali v. United States (1971) and Joe Frazier’s left hook in the “Fight of the Century.” Shanahan’s Ali is, therefore, the man after the “Rumble in the Jungle” of 1974, the triumphant hero of the counterculture who could dial Elvis, Sinatra, or the Jackson Five without apprehension. The roots of the friendship between Ali and Shanahan were in Chicago, where Ali lived after training sessions at Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, and his title defenses throughout the world. Even a critical eye can see their friendship is genuine. Shanahan and Ali banter in a horizontal rather than a vertical relationship, and this wordplay is often the best part of the book. In these conversations, the reader is provided an Ali at his most humorous, poking fun at friends and making racial jokes to ease tension. All the characters of a normal Ali biography are here: Bundini Brown asking for money, Angelo Dundee always loyal, Herbert Muhammad profiting. At times, some novel observations poke through the predictability. Ali was often inept with money and overly generous to his friends, but Shanahan shows how Ali repeatedly understood when he was being taken advantage of, portraying Ali’s even greater generosity to avoid shaming those close to him when they were in need.
Ali and Shanahan would often run in the morning, especially while Ali remained champion, and grew into mutually respected friends. Shanahan portrays Ali through this lens, as a generous and honorable man who loved his public and his family, often through [End Page 128] his devotion to the central female character in Ali’s life at the time, Veronica Porsche. However, Ali’s troubled relationship with the Nation of Islam is not clarified, and his habitual philandering is left only to a few dismissive lines about the progeny those relationships produced. Hagiography this is not, but neither is the reader provided an objective look at the champion in his home. This is the Ali already known, or at least the Ali the public fashioned.