THERE were literary observers at the birth of a phenomenon.

Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali to all practical purpose on the balmy night of February 25, 1964, in a convention centre in Miami. He defeated the big bad wolf of Sonny Liston as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote watched, both knowing they were witnessing the transformation of brash, beautiful black man into a legend. Malcolm X, writer of one of the most influential biographies of black consciousness, was there as a guest of Ali.

The triumphant boxer rushed to the ropes after he had stopped Liston. He shouted: “I am king of the world.” David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and one of the finest reporters of his times, took this sentence as the title of an excellent biography of the boxer, cultural hero, political lightning rod and greatest sportsman. Ever.

There can be arguments about Ali’s place on a list of greatest boxers. Many would nod towards Sugar Ray Robinson, other bow before Sugar Ray Leonard. There are cases to be made for others. Ali’s claims to sheer pugilistic dominance were severely compromised by his absence for more than three years from the ring as he served a ban after refusing to serve in the US Army.

He returned to add substantial weight to his myth, indeed to make it enduring, perhaps eternal. But he was never the same boxer who whipped opponents with a mixture of speed of movement and accuracy of jab.

However, he captivated, informed and intrigued the writing classes. Mailer would go from ringside in Miami to ringside in Zaire where he would write The Fight, an account of Ali’s slaying of another giant, George Foreman. Toni Morrison would edit Ali’s first autobiography. George Plimpton, the American patrician and editor of the Paris Review, would sully his hands with the blood and gore of boxing, following Ali with unrelenting dedication.

Hunter S Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Garry Wills, and Gay Talese were among the scribblers who found Ali irresistible if not without flaw.

The greatest newspaper writers of a great newspaper age were presented with The Greatest. In the USA, Red Smith, AJ Leibling and Pete Hamill had varying degrees of affection for Ali but were determined and challenging commentators on a career that spilled over from the ring into law courts, international politics, racial theory, the awful practice of racism and the core of what constitutes a hero.

In Britain, he became the specialist subject of Hugh McIlvanney, the trade’s greatest practitioner on this judge’s card.

It is far from a surprise then that Jonathan Eigg’s Ali: A Life (Simon and Schuster, £25) published this year should be reviewed at length in the New York Times by Joyce Carol Oates. Even in death, Ali draws the great writers to his party.

There are, at least, three reasons for this continued, high-level and compelling literary discussion of the life of a sportsman from Louisville, Kentucky, who struggled to read or write. As Eigg’s fine biography makes clear, Ali was a great boxer, an influential actor on the culture of his times and beyond, and a flawed but compelling man.

His sporting prowess is sometimes underplayed. Ali defeated two of the greatest bruisers of his trade: Foreman and Liston. He was involved in the most desperate, bloody and griping trilogy of boxing in his three battles with Joe Frazier. He was heavyweight champion of the world on three occasions at a time when the title was singular, rather than the subsequent era when boxing fragmented into a series of organising titles.

He was quick, clever and brave. The last characteristic did him no favours in his later career where he invited opponents to pummel him and he hit back with combinations. However, his boxing career alone would have granted him a place at the top table of greatness.

But what happened outside the ring ensured that Ali became the greatest sportsman and the most chronicled athlete (more than 50 books, and counting) of any era. His opposition to the Vietnam war, his devotion to the Nation of Islam, with uncompromising statements about the culpability of the white race, his determination to challenge and oppose the accepted role of his race at that time, all made him a figure of profound polarisation in a country, then as now, confounded and divided on matters of colour.

Ali, diminished by Parkinson’s and largely silenced by its effects, eventually became a cuddly, avuncular personality who could be called upon to perform such official duties as the lighting of the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996.

This disguises the reality that Ali was hated by much of the USA in the 1960s. His stance on refusing to be drafted to the Vietnam war was detested by much of the white constituency and drew sustained anger from many columnists.

The Nation of Islam, too, was viewed as a dangerous, revolutionary organisation. The assassination of Malcolm X lent weight to these accusations and there is evidence that Ali himself feared fatal retribution if he strayed too far from its influence.

In appearances on television shows, in interviews with the leading newspapers and magazines of his time, AIi presented himself as a strong and unapologetic accuser of the evils of the white race and a supporter of black segregation from it.

This was and is controversial and Ali later softened his stance on both issues but he pursued his aims in the 1960s with the bravery that marked his boxing, though many point out persuasively that Ali was easily influenced by the rhetoric and ideas of such as Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.

It would, therefore, be impossible to write a cultural or traditionally historical account of the 1960s without reference to a boxer. This is both an unusual and significant achievement for anyone who earns a living pounding on someone else’ head.

But if Ali’s greatness is measured in his sporting prowess and his political and social importance it is complemented by his precise stature as a human being.

This is where the Ali story becomes deeply fascinating. The best writers of an age were drawn to Ali because they sensed and then discovered that this was a personality who could not be captured by mere cliché. Ali was contradiction. He was brave when facing brutal opponents but scared of flying. He was kind to children but largely absent to his own offspring. He was generous in the most fleeting of encounters but mean, and desperately so, to some of his opponents. His treatment of Joe Frazier was a disgrace. He was a serial philanderer and was accused of abusing his wives physically and emotionally.

He was, in short, bruised and flawed, with his conspicuousness greatness matched by his desperate faults. This is what made him a veritable drug for writers and one that they could and can return to without restraint.

But there is yet another characteristic that attracts writers. Most dramatically, Ali changed. The beautiful physical specimen became a shambling old man far before his time, dying aged 74 just more than a year ago. The blustering, goading boxing champion became a reflective senior. He spoke of regret, he made apologies, he distanced himself from hate, embracing love.

The wrongs remain on his record. But in later years Ali found a redemption that lay curiously in his physical deterioration. He stated constantly that The Greatest was an invention, part fun, part in recognition of his worldly achievements. But he was just a man, subject to the will of Allah, his guiding force, and to time that relentless pursuer of all.

His life, then, had covered so much ground, his character had been so profound and superficial, so obdurate and so mallleable, that the contradictions screamed for attention. The writers were both attentive and stimulated.

There is great writing on The Greatest and Eigg adds to this even in the sure realisation that this first biography of Ali from birth to death cannot and will not be the last word.

It is appropriate, though, that Ali provided the most pithy and irrefutable words on his extraordinary life. When once asked to describe himself, he said: “Me. Wheee.” There is rhyme and substantial reason in that.