Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, My Own Story
- Written by Muhammad Ali and Richard Durham
- ISBN 0394462688
- Format: Hardcover, 415 pp
- Pub. Date: October 1975
- Publisher: Random House
Everybody knows the record — the stuff of almanacs, trade magazines and clipping services. A handful know the man. But only Muhammad Ali knows his life — as he lived it.
The Greatest is Ali's own story. For six years he worked, traveled and talked with Richard Durham, a writer with a stunning talent, and the result is mesmerizing in its brilliance, drama, humanity and sheer entertainment.
This is no documented scrapbook of wins and losses strung together with anecdotes; nor is it a thin potpourri of locker room gags. This book, like Ali — who has incited every reaction except indifference — goes straight to the place where responses to him have always been — the gut.
When the history of the twentieth century is finally recorded, it must include Muhammad Ali. He is "The Greatest." So is his book.
The Story of Ali's Gold Medal
In The Greatest, My Own Story, Ali revealed that he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river because of the racism he faced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
According to the book, Ali and his friend, Ronnie King, rode their motorbikes to a downtown restaurant, where the pot-bellied owner refused them service and they were taunted by a handful of customers. Some of the taunters belonged to a motorcycle gang, and wore jackets decorated with Confederate flags and swastikas.
After Ali and his friend left, they were confronted by the bikers, one of whom wanted Ali's medal for his girlfriend. This, and other provocations, led to a bloody fight on the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge, also known locally as the Second Street Bridge.
Ali and his friend fought off the gang and then left the bridge to wash themselves off at the edge of the river. When they returned to the bridge, Ali decided to throw the medal into the river. “I remember thinking that the middle of the Ohio was probably the deepest part," Ali says in the book. "I walked over to the center of the bridge ... and threw it into the black water of the Ohio.”
Since the publication of the book, many people, including Ali biographers Thomas Hauser and David Remnick, have concluded that the story is untrue — that Ali misplaced the medal or it was otherwise lost.
Remnick, author of the 1998 Ali biography King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, has suggested that the book was a political statement more so than a factual biography of Ali. “This was a crucial document to the Nation of Islam,” Remnick wrote, indicating that the medal story was a latter-day version of Parson Weems' tales of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree or tossing a dollar across the Potomac River. Richard Durham, who wrote the book with Ali, was the editor of Muhammad Speaks, the Nation of Islam's weekly newspaper. He died nine years after the book came out.
Photographer Howard Bingham, who has been Ali’s close friend since 1962, told Louisville's Courier-Journal that Ali lost the medal and someone made up the story. “He did not throw it in the river," he said.
“As for the gold medal story, Ali came to deny it was true when the book came out," said Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who was a Random House book editor in the 1970s and worked on the book. "I think it was at a press conference where he was asked about the medal and he said, ‘I don't remember where I put that.’ He also said he hadn't read the book. So he, in a sense, discredited the book in a way that was unfair to the stories he had told Richard in the first place, or to the stories Richard may have invented to make a point.”
“The story about the Olympic medal wasn't true, but we had to take it on faith," said James Silberman, who was editor-in-chief at Random House when the book was published. "After some time, as happens with people, Ali came to believe it. When he was young, he took everything with a wink, even the facts of his own life.”
Jeanie Kahnke, vice president for communications of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, calls the medal-tossing episode “a legend,” adding that no one can say for certain whether it's true or untrue.
In a 2001 interview with Oprah Winfrey for O magazine, Ali repeated the story:
"I walked in and tried to order two hamburgers, and I was told, 'We don't serve Negroes.' I said, 'Good—because I don't eat them either.' They said, 'You're a smart nigger—get out of here!' So I left and drove to the bridge and threw my gold medal in the river. A black man in America can win an Olympic gold medal, but he can't even come home and be served a hamburger."