125 pages • 4 hours readJames Patterson, Kwame Alexander
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Becoming Muhammad Ali is a 2019 novel by Kwame Alexander and James Patterson. It is a work of biographical and historical fiction, as it presents a fictionalized account of Cassius Clay’s childhood that draws on real events. Both authors have written middle grade novels before, including He Said, She Said (2013), The Crossover (2014), and Booked (2016) from Alexander and the Middle School series from James Patterson. The Crossover won a Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Honor. Becoming Muhammad Ali was longlisted for the 2022-2023 Indian Young Hoosier Book Award and nominated for the 2021-2022 Black-Eyed Susan Book Award.
Becoming Muhammad Ali spans the years 1954 to 1958, and it centers on how elements of Cassius Clay’s childhood laid the foundation for his adulthood, describing not only Clay’s beginnings as a boxer but the racism that permeated Louisville, Kentucky, where he grew up. The book was written in cooperation with the Muhammad Ali estate, which provided the authors with access to critical sources like oral histories to help them paint an accurate picture of a young Muhammad Ali’s life. It is divided into ten rounds, emulating the ten rounds of a boxing bout.
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This study guide refers to the 2020 edition published by Jimmy Patterson Books, an imprint of Little Brown and Company.
Content Warning: This novel and study guide include discussion of racial violence.
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Beginning with a narrative introduction by Cassius Clay’s best friend, Lucky, the novel opens in 1958 with the national Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago. As with each “Round,” the novel then jumps to Cassius Clay’s narration, in which he describes his first fights in the competition before losing and returning home to Louisville, Kentucky. There, Cassius lives with his mother Odessa “Bird” Clay, father Cassius “Cash” Marcellus Clay Sr., and brother Rudy. He also frequently spends time with his Granddaddy Herman, who emphasizes that Cassius needs to remember who he is.
Cassius, his brother, and their friends regularly experience racism growing up in Louisville, and Cassius describes how he never forgot being turned away from Fontaine Ferry Park, an amusement park much nicer than the others in Louisville but, according to the sign outside, open to “Whites Only” (45). His grandfather later describes how there are “two Louisvilles”: The city is divided by what white people can access and what Black people can (47). Cassius dreams of becoming rich and famous so that he can do whatever he wants.
When Cassius is 12, his grandfather passes away shortly after explaining that Cassius and his father are both named for a white abolitionist named Cassius Marcellus Clay. He also teaches Cassius a card trick, which he practices every night. Cassius struggles in school and eventually gets a tutor.
Cassius and his friends grow up watching Tomorrow’s Champion on television. Each Saturday, two boxers face off over the course of three rounds. Cassius begins to wonder if boxing would be a good path for him. His father dismisses it, emphasizing the importance of education. That same day, he gives Cassius a new red Schwinn bicycle, and Cassius feels like he is on top of the world.
One day, Cassius and his friends ride during a storm and, seeking shelter, they leave their bikes outside the Columbia Auditorium. When they return, Cassius’s bike has been stolen. Angered, he finds the only police officer in the auditorium: a boxing coach named Joe Martin. Cassius starts boxing and dreams of becoming the best boxer in the world. However, the first time he enters the ring, he fails to keep his fists up and is nearly knocked out. Then he defeats Ronnie O’Keefe on Tomorrow’s Champions, winning his first official fight.
In 1955, when Cassius is 13, he finds out that Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. Seeing this boy, not much older than himself, in a magazine, he realizes that racism is more dangerous than he ever realized and begins to see boxing as a way to safety, for both him and his family. His focus narrows even more, and boxing becomes the center of his life.
Cassius recounts his experience at the 1958 Golden Gloves again briefly and his return to Louisville after the competition. He soon begins prepping for the 1959 tournament and watches old films of other Black boxers. His family throws a party as he prepares to leave for the tournament, and during the celebration, Cassius successfully does the card trick he learned from Granddaddy Herman. He also visits Herman’s grave and thanks him for all that he has taught him, confirming that now he knows who he is, where is from, and whose he is. The next day, he leaves for Chicago.
In the “Final Round,” which serves as the novel’s epilogue, Lucky explains that Cassius won the national Golden Gloves that year and the next. He then fights in the 1960 Olympics and earns a gold medal. Eventually, he changes his name to Muhammad Ali. Outside the ring, Ali becomes controversial for refusing to enlist in the United States Army after being drafted. He is later restored as heavyweight champion of the world, but his career ends when he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He still advocates for change, becoming a messenger for peace for the United Nations and working to raise money for those suffering from Parkinson’s. He passes away in 2016, and Lucky says that not only was Muhammad Ali the greatest boxer, as he dreamed he would be, he “was also a true and loyal friend” (305).
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