King of the World

Professional boxers have often been sport’s walking wounded— kept alive by mobsters and media. Neither support group took seriously an eighteen-year-old 1960 Olympic gold-medal winner from Louisville, Kentucky, who boasted to a young sportswriter named Dick Schaap that “I’ll be the greatest of all time.” Big men were supposed to wade in and flatten their foes but not, like this kid Cassius Clay, “dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and have the brass to write self-celebrating doggerel about it.

The Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali phenomenon benefited from interacting forces. The usual suspects were in disarray when Clay came on in the early 1960’s. For him, gangsters were supplanted by the Nation of Islam, to whom, given his new name, Muhammad Ali pledged undying loyalty even as he rose to boxing’s pinnacle.

The book is a triangle with Sonny Liston, the bad black champ, and Floyd Patterson, the good black champ, occupying contrasting legs and Ali the base. David Remnick gives Patterson and Liston center stage early—the shy and fearful Patterson led to the slaughter by the fearsome challenger. Once Clay/Ali arrives, subtly intimidating the ex-convict who knew from jail to steer clear of crazies, Liston had no chance.

Neither the boxing world nor a color-line-obsessed society in general had ever felt the thrust of a man of independence and American originality who would transcend the Listons and Pattersons. In...

(The entire section is 406 words.)