Greatest Book of All Time

Boxing behemoth re-released at a lighter weight—and a price that photography lovers and sports fans can afford

Muhammad Ali is such a beloved cultural icon, and his achievements—both in and out of the boxing ring—are so significant, that no standard biography can do the man justice. You simply cannot tell the full story of the only boxer to win the heavyweight crown three times in a couple hundred pages with two dozen pictures neatly inserted down the middle. Cannot be done.

Just ask German-born publisher Benedikt Taschen. In 2004, he unveiled the Muhammad Ali project he’d been working on since 2000. Taschen envisioned a tribute befitting a king of the ring, an illustrated biography as dynamic as the former heavyweight champ himself. The resulting book, simply called GOAT (the acronym stands for “Greatest of All Time”), was supersized in every way, spanning 800 pages and weighing a staggering 75 pounds. Many of the photos (there were about 3,000) were by Neil Leifer and longtime Ali photographer and biographer Howard L. Bingham, but Taschen also licensed photography and art from an additional 70 sources, making room for everyone, from Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz to Philippe Halsman and David LaChapelle.

Still, GOAT, wasn’t conceived as some fancy picture book. Taschen paid equal attention to the words, all 600,000 of them, calling on six decades’ worth of essays, articles, observations and opinions from sportswriters, mainstream journalists, the boxing community and Ali’s inner circle. There’s a lot to digest here, a lot of choice material, much of it never before published.

Taschen produced two limited editions of GOAT. One, dubbed the “Champ’s Edition,” was limited to 1,000 copies and included a copy of GOAT bound in pink leather (the color of Ali’s first Cadillac) by the official bindery for the Vatican. The cover was white silk with pink lettering, and the complete package included “Radial Champs,” a specially commissioned sculpture from artist Jeff Koons. The book was signed by Ali and Koons, and also included four “gallery-quality” prints of Ali (signed by Bingham and Ali). Each copy was nestled in a silk-covered box with Leifer’s famous overhead shot of Ali’s knockout of Cleveland Williams, from November 1966.

The price tag? A whopping $15,000.

For budget-conscious fans who love Ali but like to eat, there was also a collector’s edition, which only cost $4,500. That version (limited to 9,000 copies) was also signed by Ali and Koons, but fans missed out on the Koons’ sculpture (it was replaced by a lithograph), and the Bingham photographs. The cover was different, too, swapping the while silk cover with a shot of Ali’s famous torso.

Now, as part of Taschen’s 30th anniversary in publishing, GOAT (re-titled The Greatest of All Time) has been reformatted and republished at a price that’s simply too good to pass up: $150. It’s smaller than the previous editions, and doesn’t come loaded with any extras, but at 15 pounds it’s still enough to make your coffee table groan. The pictures, the essays and the interviews are all here, and the book has been updated for 2010, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Ali’s first professional fight.

The Greatest of All Time now sports a third cover, Neil Leifer’s famous and exquisite shot of Ali towering over a flat-on-his-back Sonny Liston, from their 1965 bout. There’s no silk-covered box this time, but you do get a nifty cardboard carrying case with a little plastic handle, which makes it easy for you to cart this book up to a cash register.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself a serious student of “the sweet science” or find boxing difficult to stomach. Ali will long be remembered as a consummate athlete and competitor, the man who elevated trash talk to an art form and taught us the “rope-a-dope,” and as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War (long before it was fashionable) who refused to serve and was convicted of draft evasion, until his case was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Score The Greatest of All Time a triumph for both Ali and Taschen. It’s a knockout, no two ways about it.