King of the World

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“It never occurred to me that you couldn’t like both Walt Whitman and the New York Knicks,” wrote thirty-nine- year-old David Remnick in reference to his first full-time job in journalism as a sportswriter for The Washington Post. “That kind of false dichotomy has always seemed ridiculous to me.” Remnick’s “false dichotomy” is inseparable from the misperceptions of him and of The New Yorker magazine, whose editor he became in mid-1998, succeeding Tina Brown. Covering the infamous ear-biting Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas last year, his sixth as staff writer for the magazine, Remnick was approached by a middle-aged couple who saw his reporter’s ID. “The New Yorker?” he was asked. “Do they cover boxing?”

Remnick early cherished The New Yorker essays on boxing by the late A. J. Liebling. He also recognized that literature’s touchstone is dramatic conflict, whether found in large in the death agony of the century’s most formidable totalitarian system or, in smaller but no less galvanic terms, the legend of Ali, a transcendent sports hero. The transition from his 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning Lenin’s Tomb to King of the World, which will be among the essential books for students of the American 1960’s, was easy.

The quintessential locus for naked conflict in sports is the boxing ring, according to Remnick. It pits two men, without any protective apparatus other than padded gloves, whose mutual intent is to destroy. Yet professional boxers have always 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—not, like the young Cassius Clay, to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and have the brass to write self-celebrating doggerel about it.

To Liebling, “Clay had a skittering style, like a pebble scaled over water . . . good to watch but making only glancing contact.” To the midcentury’s dean of boxing columnists, Jimmy Cannon, Clay was the “fifth Beatle. . . . He was all pretense and gas.” Only apprentice sportswriters such as Schaap and, especially, the socially conscious Robert Lipsyte recognized in the young contender a figure outside the heroic image of the mechanical destroyer Joe Louis, a man whose bold charisma might end the grip of organized crime, save the sport, and help break society’s color line.

However, as Remnick reveals in this riveting account, the Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali phenomenon benefited from interacting forces. The usual mob suspects were in disarray when Clay emerged in the early 1960’s. For him, the Frankie Carbos were benevolently supplanted by the Black Muslims, to whom he pledged undying loyalty even as he rose to boxing’s pinnacle.

The usual patronizing tribute accorded a book like this is that it reads like a novel. King of the World reads like higher journalism in the best mold of a David Halberstam, to whom Remnick acknowledges a “real debt.” Its kinship with strong fiction, of which Remnick is a tireless reader, lies in its seamlessness. From a splendid prologue set in the 1990’s—Remnick and the Parkinson’s-afflicted Ali watch in the latter’s rural southern Michigan retreat films of his first fight with the fearsome Sonny Liston—the narrative flashes back to...

(The entire section is 1473 words.)