Becoming Muhammad Ali


By James Patterson

By Kwame Alexander

Illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile

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Two heavy-hitters in children's literature deliver a critically acclaimed, bestselling biographical novel of cultural icon Muhammad Ali. 

"This utterly delightful story about Ali's childhood is a smash hit."—School Library Journal (starred review)

Before he was a household name, Cassius Clay was a kid with struggles like any other. Kwame Alexander and James Patterson join forces to vividly depict his life up to age seventeen in both prose and verse, including his childhood friends, the racism he faced, his struggles in school, and his discovery of boxing. Readers will learn about Cassius' family and neighbors in Louisville, Kentucky, and how, after a thief stole his bike, Cassius began training as an amateur boxer at age twelve. Before long, he won his first Golden Gloves bout and began his transformation into the unrivaled Muhammad Ali.

Fully authorized by and written in cooperation with the Muhammad Ali estate, and vividly brought to life by Dawud Anyabwile's dynamic artwork, Becoming Muhammad Ali captures the budding charisma and youthful personality of one of the greatest sports heroes of all time.

Longlisted for the 2022-2023 Indiana Young Hoosier Book Award, and nominated for the 2021-2022 Black Eyed Susan Book Award!


The wonders and woes

in this novel are true…

or based on truth

and real things…

that happened

to real people…

or real people

we imagined…

to be true…

for real.


I remember everything. You probably would have too. That night was a piece of American history.

The Clay family phone was dusky black with a rotary dial, and it sat on a wooden table in the neat-as-a-pin living room of the little house on Grand Avenue in Louisville, Kentucky.

Some twenty of us were crammed like sardines into the room, waiting for that phone to ring.

Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for Cassius to call home.

It was a February night in 1958. And I remember it like it was yesterday.

My best friend, Cassius, was three hundred miles north in Chicago, and that night he was fighting for a championship in the Golden Gloves boxing tournament.

Cassius wasn’t a professional yet, just an amateur. Tall, but a little skinny, and a lot raw. Only sixteen years old, like me.

I’m Lucius, by the way. Nice to meet you. You can call me Lucky. All my friends do.

Cassius had already won plenty of bouts all over Kentucky. But the Chicago Golden Gloves was the big time.

When he won there—and we all knew he would—it would be lights out! From now on, people everywhere would know the name Cassius Clay.

And so we waited for the phone to ring.

I remember that living room was so packed with family and friends and neighbors that we could hardly move! The smell of roast chicken and sweet potato pie and cheese grits mixed with the smell of paint and turpentine. Mr. Clay, Cassius’s dad, who everybody called Cash, was a sign and billboard painter, and he kept his work supplies right there in the house.

“Mrs. Clay!” somebody called out. “When that boy of yours gets famous, he ought to buy you a bigger house!”

“Oh, you know he will!” she answered. Then she looked right at me. “Isn’t that right, Lucius?”

“Yes, ma’am, you know it is. Cassius promised you a big house!”

I remember that Mrs. Clay was too nervous to eat. But she wasn’t too nervous to talk about how proud she was!

“My Cassius did everything early!” she was saying to a group of ladies. “He crawled early, talked early, walked early—walked on his toes like a dancer.”

The ladies all laughed—as if they hadn’t heard that story a hundred times before. But Mrs. Clay just couldn’t help it. Cassius always told her he was bound to be the greatest—with a capital G—and she believed it with all her heart.

So did I.

So did everybody in Louisville’s West End.

C’mon, phone. Ring, phone, ring-a-ding-ding.

The men and boys around the room—including Cassius’s little brother, Rudy—looked at one another with big grins and made punching motions with their fists. The big fight should be over by now. Under those bright lights in the middle of that huge Chicago Stadium, Cassius would be standing tall in the ring with one hand over his head like always—his opponent next to him with head bowed down in defeat.

Then the phone rang.

It was Cassius with news about the fight. And he told it like only Cassius could tell a story…

Before the Fight

a reporter asked me

if I thought

I was as good

as Joe Louis

or Sugar Ray was

at my age

and I told him,

I don’t think

I’m as good,


Got more FLOW

than Joe,

more SLAY

than Ray.

I’m sweeter,


and faster.

As a matter of fact,

I’m so fast

I can’t even catch


Cassius Clay vs. Alex Watt

FEBRUARY 24, 1958

Here’s how it all went down:

The bell rang

in Chicago Stadium

and I could barely see

the lightweight rush me

through the rank cigar smoke

that filled the arena.

In the first round,

he threw punches

like pitches,

fast and straight,

striking air

and striking out.

So, I played peek-a-boo

in the second,

sending quick jabs

to his head.

You ain’t ready for Cassius, I whispered.

Then I shook him up

with a left

and took him down hard

in the third.

He sho’ wasn’t ready.

But neither was I,

when I found out

who I was fighting


Cassius Clay vs. Francis Turley

FEBRUARY 25, 1958

Frank Turley

was a cowboy

from Montana,


than an angry ox,

with fists

even meaner.

They said

he broke a guy’s nose

with a left jab,

then smiled

when the joker

went tumbling

outta the ring,

blood spurting


I’ma lick you good, boss, he said,

winking at me

before the bell rang, and

I believed

that he believed

he would.


We traded punches

like baseball cards.

Him, a wild mustang.

Me, a Louisville slugger.

Back and forth,

left and right,


and rugged, till

he cornered me

with two lucky shots

to the jaw

that felt like kicks

from a mule

and sent me tumbling

to the mat, wondering

if I should just stay there.

Long Count


While I lay there,

the referee standing

over me, counting

to ten

to see if I could get up,

I wished my father

was sitting ringside

shouting my name.


I thought about home,

about 3302 Grand Avenue,

and playing football

in the backyard

with Rudy, and


the Montgomery kids next door

and who was gonna babysit them

now that I was a boxer,


and whether Lucky

bought the new Superman

like he promised.


I thought about

my granddaddy Herman’s story

about Tom the Slave.


I thought about

how boxing

was gonna set me free,

set us all free, and


what I’d ask Momma Bird

to cook

for my celebration


after I got up and


whupped this cowboy

from Montana

and advanced

to the semi-finals

of the 1958 Golden Gloves Championship.

Celebration Dinner Menu

Two orders of veal

Three slices of white bread

A bowl of cornbread dressing

One large green salad

A bowl of chili

Scrambled eggs

Cheese grits

Baked chicken with baked potato

Two pieces of pecan pie

Five scoops of strawberry ice cream, and

A great big ol’ glass

of OJ.

I Jumped Up On


and Frank kept swinging

like a lumberjack

trying to knock down

a tree

but I kept standing,

kept sticking,

kept moving

like a mighty wind

till the final bell rang

and the judges

unanimously called out

my name

for the win.

Cassius Clay vs. Kent Green


I was a little weary

from hanging out

the night before

but that didn’t shake

my confidence

when I stepped

into the ring,

gliding like a bomber jet

and launching punches

like missiles.

Thing was, Kent Green

was a tank

and he just brushed off

my attack

like you would

a pesky fly

at a picnic.

The evening newspaper read:

The sixteen-year-old pugilist

from Louisville

with his quick feet

and a loud mouth

showed promise

in his first two fights

but got outboxed

by the older,

more seasoned,


Kent Green.

On the Phone with Lucky

I might have lost

but I’m still boss.

I lost my stride

but not my pride.

I’m still here, and yeah,

I’m comin’ home

but this dream I got

is set in stone:

To be the best

in the hemisphere.

To win the Golden Gloves

next year.

How do I know?

’Cause Cassius is courageous,


and one day

he’ll be

the greatest.

You hear that, Lucky?

I’m coming home.


Maybe he didn’t win the Golden Gloves championship in Chicago that year—but my friend Cassius was still bound for greatness. He just knew it. And I knew it too. To tell the truth, I think losing that last fight made him work even harder. Made him focus. Nobody could focus like Cassius Clay. He didn’t let anything stand in his way. Not even a bottle of soda.

Me, I loved soda—especially ice-cold in frosty bottles on those hot Louisville summer nights. So did most kids. It tasted soooo good! But Cassius never touched it. Not a single sip. “Sugar and acid ain’t good for you, Lucky,” he said. And that was that.


For Cassius, there was no smoking either (“Ain’t gonna put that stuff in my lungs!”). And he always went to bed at ten o’clock, even on Saturday nights. Like he wanted to grow in his sleep.


After school, we went everywhere together, the two of us. And whenever we headed downtown, we stuck together tight. Tight like glue. And we kept our eyes wide open. Because going downtown meant crossing over into the white world. And in that world, four eyes were definitely better than two.

All over Louisville, we saw signs that Cassius’s daddy had painted. But the white people who owned the stores under those signs stared at us when we passed by—like they were just waiting for us to do something wrong, or say something fresh, or take something we didn’t pay for.

One day, we passed a bicycle store. There was a line of bikes out front, with bright chrome fenders and front wheels all turned to one side. At the end, one bike stood out past the others. It was a brand-new Schwinn Black Phantom, with white sidewall tires, pinstripes, and sparkly paint. It was the coolest bike either of us had ever seen.

Cassius gave out a low whistle when he saw it.

“Look at that bike, Lucky!” he said. “That’s the kind of bike I should be riding!”

Cassius reached out and stroked the handlebars like he was petting a cat. The chrome gleamed between his fingers.

Then we heard the bike-shop door open. The owner and his wife stood in the doorway, halfway out, at the top of the cement steps. We froze.

“You boys don’t want nothin’ with that bike,” said the man, his face all red and puffy. He started to come down the steps at us, but his wife put a hand on his arm. She seemed a little softer, but still strong enough to stop him. She had reddish-blond hair and a green dress.

“Scoot, now,” she said. “You boys get on home.”

She knew exactly where home was.

Home meant the West End—mostly black Louisville. It was one of the few parts of the city where the Clays and my folks could buy a house. In most parts of town, they couldn’t get a loan to buy a house, couldn’t even walk into most hotels or diners. Whites Only, the signs said. When Mrs. Clay took Cassius downtown as a kid, he got confused because nobody there looked like him.

“Momma Bird,” Cassius would ask, “what did they do with all the colored people?”

One day when Cassius was little, he stood outside the five-and-dime store crying because he was thirsty. When Mrs. Clay went inside to ask for a drink of water, the store guard made her leave.

“If we serve Negroes in here, we lose our jobs,” the guard told her. So Cassius went home thirsty, mad the whole way. Cassius was so young, his momma thought he wouldn’t remember that day.

But he did.

Granddaddy Herman’s Living Room

was always like church

to me.

I was the congregation.

His couch, my pew.

The rhythm and blues on his radio

was the choir, and

Ebony magazine

was his bible.

His sermons were sometimes poems,

other times stories

from history—his and America’s.

But my granddaddy’s sermons always ended

the same way:

Know who you are, Cassius.

And whose you are.

Know where you going

and where you from.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Where I’m From

I am from black Cadillacs,

from plastic-covered sofas

in tiny pink houses.

I am from the one bathroom

we all shared

and the living room

you stayed out of.

I am from Friday fried fish

and chocolate birthday cakes,

from Levy Brothers’ slacks

and shiny white shoes,

from Cash and Bird,

from storytellers

and good looks,

from don’t say you can’t

till you try.

I’m from the Kentucky Derby

and the land of baseball bats,

from the two Cassius Clays before me—one

black, one white.

I am from slavery

to freedom,

from the West End

to Smoketown,

from the unfulfilled dreams

of my father

to the hallelujah hopes

of my momma.

My Momma

smells like vanilla,

is always smiling,

loves cooking,

and I bet could make

a whole Sunday outfit

outta needle and thread.

Odessa “Bird” Clay may be

the smallest

of the Clays,

but her heart is the biggest,

wide as the sea.

And when she sings

at Mount Zion Baptist,

her voice is like water,

soft and sweet

as a hummingbird.

She Says the Day I Was Born

my head

was too big

to come out

on its own,

so the doctors yanked me

with some sharp tongs

that left a small, square bruise

on my cheek.

She says I hurt so much

that I cried

and hollered

most of the night

and into the next day,

which got the other

babies in the ward

screaming too,

but probably I was

sounding a rallying cry

to all my little soldiers

for all the brown babies

in the world

to stand up

and be counted.

After That

I vowed to never

let anyone put a mark

on my pretty face



  • Praise for Becoming Muhammad Ali:
  • * "A stellar collaboration that introduces an important and intriguing individual to today's readers."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • * "The prose and poems reflect Clay's both public bravado and private humbleness as well as his appreciation and respect for family and friends. A knockout!"—Booklist, starred review
  • * "This utterly delightful story about Ali's childhood is a smash hit. Get this uplifting, informative book onto library shelves and into kids' hands."—School Library Journal, starred review
  • * "Cassius's narrative illustrates his charisma, drive, and work to know who you are."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • * "Patterson and Alexander, two heavyweights in the world of books, unite to tell the story of how Cassius Clay grew up to be Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time."—The Horn Book, starred review

On Sale
Oct 5, 2020
Page Count
320 pages

James Patterson

About the Author

James Patterson is the world’s bestselling author, best known for his many enduring fictional characters and series, including Alex Cross, the Women’s Murder Club, Michael Bennett, Maximum Ride, Middle School, I Funny, and Jacky Ha-Ha. Patterson’s writing career is characterized by a single mission: to prove to everyone, from children to adults, that there is no such thing as a person who “doesn’t like to read,” only people who haven’t found the right book. He’s given over a million books to schoolkids and over forty million dollars to support education, and endowed over five thousand college scholarships for teachers. He writes full-time and lives in Florida with his family.

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Kwame Alexander

About the Author

Kwame Alexander is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty books, including his Newbery Medal-winning novel The Crossover and The Undefeated, winner of the Caldecott Medal and Newbery Honor. He is the founding editor of Versify, which aims to change the world one word at a time.

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