King of the World


Muhammad Ali is our black Paul Bunyan, except that Bunyan’s superhuman exploits were fables and Ali’s are real. He is not merely our most famous heavyweight champion; indeed, with all respect to Joe Louis, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, the most venerated of our celebrated athletes, he managed to reach a level of global idolization in a manner that can only be described as transcendental. Who could have predicted in the late 1960’s, when Muhammad Ali was reviled by the sporting press and most of white America as a black racist, a mouthy troublemaker, that he would be the obvious choice to light the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, as a symbol of international understanding, peace and love? What would all the name-callers be thinking now, we wondered, as the puffy-faced, middle-aged icon stood there with torch held high in that famous right hand that delivered some of the most punishing right crosses of the 20th century?

Following his auspicious debut as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning ”Lenin’s Tomb,” in ”King of the World” David Remnick brings to his reading of the Ali scriptures a helpful sense of recent boxing history, inseparable from political history; since all champions after the 1950’s were black, their lives reflected the social forces at work on them. By choosing to focus on Ali’s two predecessors as champions, first Floyd Patterson, then Sonny Liston, the author nicely sets the scene for the impact the Greatest would make when he was ready to shove them aside to take center stage.

In a discerning and sensitive portrait, Floyd Patterson — surely the most unlikely man ever to wear the crown — is the good Negro, an approachable and strangely fearful man, a deferential champion of civil rights, integration and Christian decency. So anxious about losing was Patterson in his first fight with the stone-faced Sonny Liston that he brought a disguise to the dressing room to escape incognito from his anticipated humiliation. ”He was champion in the sense that Chester A. Arthur had been President,” Remnick sums up in a particularly felicitous phrase. Some other beauts: Patterson’s haunted mentor, Cus D’Amato, is ”a cross between the Emperor Hadrian and Jimmy Cagney” (”a 10!” this reader scribbled in the margin) and, a few pages later, ”the only modern psychoanalyst who carried a spit bucket in his hand and a Q-Tip in his teeth.”

If Patterson was, in Norman Mailer’s words, ”a liberal’s liberal,” the tamed Negro literally reformed in reform school, passive, polite and nice, Sonny Liston was the perfect counterweight, the big, bad, black stereotype in every fearful white man’s nightmare. One of a dozen children, Liston progressed from overgrown 10-year-old petty thief to knee-breaker for the St. Louis teamsters and the mob that owned them as naturally as a white middle-class child moves up from elementary school to junior high. It was the only possible career move for this precociously physical muscle boy who couldn’t read or write but could knock opponents down with a left jab and cripple them with jaw-breaking rights. By the end of the 1950’s Liston was ready for the big time, which meant he was afforded the opportunity to turn over virtually 100 percent of his future earnings to Mr. Gray, otherwise known as Frankie Carbo, acknowledged commissioner of boxing without portfolio. But who needs a portfolio if you run the fight game for the Lucchese family?

With racy scholarship, Remnick traces what would seem an unlikely liaison between Mr. Gray (or Mr. Fury, as he was sometimes called) and James Norris, head of the International Boxing Commission and heir to a grain and real estate fortune worth hundreds of millions. Madison Square Garden and the top fighters in every division were in their pocket, and this odd couple controlled the fight game until the Feds finally caught up with Mr. Gray (while Mr. Norris, as befitted a scion of Chicago society, was exonerated). But, as Remnick concludes, ”through one false front or another, with a succession of ostensible managers, Liston never moved far from the shade of Frankie Carbo.” How could he? He knew no other world. In a defining moment that Remnick makes poignant, Liston flies back to Philadelphia after he takes the championship away from Patterson, expecting a triumphant welcome — and nobody shows up. The story of his life. Deep into this carefully written book, Remnick quotes the cynically literate fight promoter Hal Conrad, who knew Lucky Luciano as well as he did Floyd, Cassius and Sonny. His chilling epitaph for Liston: He died the day he was born.

Like a good playwright setting up the entrance of his hero in Act 2, Remnick gives us Floyd the Good (Victim No. 1) and Sonny the Bad (Victim No. 2) to prepare us for Cassius the Baaad, the upstart champion young blacks and their white hippie allies could relate to. Born in still-segregated Louisville, ”wounded by the accumulated slights of midcentury American apartheid,” lying in his bed at night crying ”as he wondered why his race had to suffer so,” young Cassius was on his way to becoming the symbol of a different kind of black man, whose role model was neither Booker T. Washington nor Martin Luther King. Malcolm X was more like it.

Just as Ali created a new style of heavyweight boxing, ”on the principle that a big man could borrow the tactics of a smaller man,” a man like Sugar Ray Robinson, he created a new style of black man who went on to shock the world with a challenge both divisive and unifying. With Hegelian logic, in time there would be a synthesis, but when in the mid-60’s Cassius Clay embraced Elijah Muhammad’s black separatist Nation of Islam, his ”I don’t have to be what you want me to be” spoke to the white power structure in a way it had never been spoken to before. While Ali’s conversion came as a surprise to fight fans and to the public at large, one of the most effective chapters in this book, ”Secrets,” traces the teen-age Clay’s attraction to the Black Muslims well before he won the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. It was the increasingly bitter confrontation between pro- and anti-Vietnam War factions that moved the young black champion from the sports pages to the front pages. Teen-agers in Watts wore his famous face on their buttons, and the ”Don’t tread on me” of black rebellion became ”The Cong don’t call me nigger.”

If Remnick has not come up with new material for ”King of the World” — no small task after a score of books on the subject — he’s drawn wisely from that body of work to define the arc of Ali’s ascendancy from superconfident adolescent to Islam-inspired but ecumenical spiritual ambassador (only Ali was multidimensional: he could reach out to the world like Mother Teresa, but as they say in Gleason’s Gym, she couldn’t lick Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman).

Remnick — who broke in as a sportswriter at The Washington Post and is now editor of The New Yorker — explores the difference between the civil rights movement, founded on democratic principles, and the self-sufficient, fiercely independent Black Is Beautiful movement that caught fire with Ali, captured the imagination of his generation and gave him the courage to refuse the draft, thereby sacrificing his precious championship, facing the prospect of five years in jail and, while appealing his case on the grounds of conscientious objection, being deprived of the license without which he could not ply his trade. The cost to Ali in dollars was in the millions. But there were rewards. From Bertrand Russell came this message of encouragement: ”In the coming months there is no doubt that the men who rule Washington will try to damage you in every way open to them, but I am sure you know that you spoke for your people and for the oppressed everywhere in the courageous defiance of American power. . . . You have my wholehearted support. Call me when you get to England.” As Remnick quotes the poet Sonia Sanchez: ”It’s hard now to relay the emotion of that time . . . when hardly any well-known people were resisting the draft. It was a war that was disproportionately killing young black brothers, and here was this beautiful, funny, poetical young man standing up and saying no!”

How Ali finally won vindication in the Supreme Court of the United States, 8-zip, how he came back to the ring slower and inevitably more hittable but winning his title back again, and how after the tide turned against our Vietnam misadventure the unpatriotic sinner of the 60’s each year grew in stature as a man of honor and respect — maybe only a prophet could have foreseen these events. As Remnick ties it all together in ”King of the World,” building on all those books and articles and transcripts, along with personal interviews, it doesn’t read like the case history of a man (although the man is here in living colors, sometimes funny as hell) but of a comic and cosmic superman who accepts the mission of standing up for Mohammed, Allah and the human race.

While Remnick’s firsthand description of Ali’s current physical condition is disturbing — not least, as he notes, ”because it is an accelerated form of what we all fear, the progression of aging, the unpredictability and danger of life” — his (our) Ali is ”an American myth who has come to mean many things to many people: a symbol of faith, a symbol of conviction and defiance, a symbol of beauty and skill and courage, a symbol of racial pride, of wit and love.” That’s a lot of symbols for one man. But if ever there was a mighty army of men fused into one, it’s the young Cassius Clay self-created as Muhammad Ali. If Sonny Liston died the day he was born, here’s a fine book to remind us again that Ali was born with a gift for living (and believing) in a world without end.