The Bookworm Sez: Running With the Champ is a different kind of Ali memoir

By: 

Terri Schlichenmeyer

Two heads are better than one.

Another body can make work lighter, both in mood and in task. A partner can support you, encourage you, inspire you, and sympathize with you. You solve easier with another mind on the problem. Yes, two heads are better than one, and in the new book Running with the Champ by Tim Shanahan (with Chuck Crisafulli), so are four feet.

People who knew Muhammad Ali probably wouldn’t be surprised that he met Tim Shanahan in 1970 because of a charity event.

Shanahan was working with a Chicago organization, and needed big-name sports heroes to “deliver a motivational speech to the students.” His connections led to Ali, who invited Shanahan into his home and his life. They were friends almost instantly; days later, they became regular running partners.

It was a rather informal situation, says Shanahan: they ran when they could, near a park in Chicago. This was after Ali’s three-year boxing suspension, and both knew that the Champ needed encouragement; Shanahan, the better runner, gave it to him. The unlikely friendship began to take deepen: the black Muslim athlete who came from the wrong side of the Louisville tracks and the Catholic white guy born in Wisconsin would lay in the grass after their run, discussing their childhoods, favorite things, dreams, and life in general.

Being Ali’s friend was a wild ride through the years.

The Champ was often abrupt with his demands, both to Shanahan and to others; he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and expected his wishes to be quickly granted. He was generous, monetarily and time-wise, with nearly everyone he saw, giving away a good portion of his income (and, supposedly, some of Shanahan’s, too). Ali loved meeting celebrities, hated unsolicited advice, could be stubborn (especially in his career), and had a surprising jealous streak, but he was funny and larger-than-life. Then, around the time Ali retired, things changed: he started uncharacteristically losing his patience with many in his inner circle – including Shanahan.

In 1984, a diagnosis of “parkinsonism” explained everything…

In many such memoirs based on celebrity, you’ll often find a distracting amount of name-dropping and braggadocio. You might even expect that in a memoir about Muhammad Ali, but the surprise is that author Tim Shanahan (with Chuck Crisafulli) doesn’t focus on that alone. Instead, Running with the Champ is a loving tribute to a friendship.

And yet – as in so many relationships between famous and not-famous, there were the not-so-good-times, and Shanahan includes those among his stories. Here, we see a big-hearted athlete in action, and sometimes struggling. We also get a heartbreaking glimpse of Ali and his determination to hang on to the shreds of a career that was done.

For fans who’ve read everything they can on Ali’s fights, this is a look from a different angle at the man himself, from a fan-turned-friend who may’ve never really known Ali at all. If you need a book about The Greatest, then, Running with The Champ may be one of the better ones.

 

Running with the Champ by Tim Shanahan (with Chuck Crisafulli) c.2016, Simon & Schuster, $27.00 / $36.00 Canada, 307 pages