A talented 22-year-old athlete named Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.) won the heavyweight boxing championship title—a stunning upset in a Miami, Florida arena. Clay shattered the pundits’ expectations with his win, by the fight’s seventh round, against experienced champion Charles “Sonny” Liston.
Clay called himself “the greatest” boxer in the world and subsequently changed his name to Muhammad Ali. With his loud, rhyming proclamations of invincibility and prettiness, Ali had become a popular, if controversial, international sports and cultural icon. Yet after embracing the Nation of Islam and the Muslim faith, claiming conscientious objector status and refusing to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era, Ali was stripped of his championship title in 1967.
To support himself while he challenged his draft evasion conviction and ban from boxing, Ali embarked on several income generating ventures—including writing his autobiography. Ali asked award-winning broadcast dramatist and journalist Richard Durham to be his credited ghostwriter.
Durham had a popular radio program in Chicago, Illinois, called Destination Freedom that, as Blackpast.org describes, “was unlike anything else being broadcast over the airwaves. For over two years audiences tuned in every Sunday night and were treated to dramatized stories featuring prominent African Americans. …What made Destination Freedom so important was its then-novel portrayal of African Americans.”
With the support of their Random House editor (and future Nobel Laureate) Toni Morrison, Durham traveled and worked with Ali for six years to capture the champ’s battles both in and out of the ring. As Sonja Williams writes in the book Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom, Durham recalls that he,
wanted to write about the totality of Ali’s multi-layered character. “Some people have two personalities. Muhammad has five,” Durham once told a Chicago Defender reporter.
In 1975, Durham and Ali published The Greatest: My Own Story, becoming a bestseller. The book was translated into several languages and re-released November 2015. As Ismael Reed wrote in a review for the New York Times:
It is a book that portrays Muhammad Ali as generous, heroic and intelligent—possibly a genius. … Richard Durham has done a very professional job in getting the Champ’s style and tone down on paper…
Read more about the Ali-Durham collaboration and about Durham’s life as a writer in Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom.