King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

by David Remnick
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero is a 1998 biography of the renowned boxer Muhammad Ali. The author, David Remnick, has since written a biography on Barack Obama (The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, 2010). Remnick is a writer for the New Yorker, and so he is equally attune to contemporary social issues. He situates Muhammad Ali in the social fabric of Ali's athletic and political world.

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The biography is a story of the transformation of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. The narrative is one of vivid detail, describing in particular his fights with renowned black boxers Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. Several other prominent figures of Ali's time are featured in Remnick's biography: John F. Kennedy, Malcom X, and his mentor, Elijah Muhammad (whose namesake Muhammad Ali is).

Major topics parallel to Ali's life addressed in the book include the Vietnam War. A Muslim, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted, declaring himself a conscientious objector. The Civil Rights Movement is also depicted at great length in the course of Remnick's biography. The Nation of Islam, of which Muhammad had once been a member, opposed the Mass Civil Rights movement, though Ali himself was a proponent of it.

This biography is unique for its close-up, journalistic tone, and its vivid descriptions of select fights. Muhammad Ali's history is closely bound up with the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the 1960s in general; Remnick shows that Ali was more than just an incredible boxer.

King of the World

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1473

“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 pre-Ali days of boxing and its two archetypes, Floyd Patterson (the “good black” heavyweight) and Liston (the “bad” one).

Remnick devotes part 1’s four chapters to Patterson (“the most doubt-addled of titleholders,” a man who wore a disguise to escape notice after being dismantled by Liston in 126 seconds in 1962) and to the new champion Liston, an ex- convict with a withering stare and deadly punch whose gangster sponsors supplied him with prostitutes during training. The book is a triangle, with Liston and Patterson occupying the contrasting legs and Ali the base. Remnick’s portrait of Liston as one whose end bore the inevitability of the boxer rather than the comeuppance of the bully, contains some of his most nuanced prose. When Liston’s wife, away visiting her mother, returned to Las Vegas, she found his body in their hotel room. Liston, thirty- eight, had been dead six days. His was a drug addict’s death, although the report listed the causes as lung congestion and heart failure. Remnick quotes a publicist who knew him well as believing that “Liston died the day he was born.”

Part 2—also four chapters—places at center stage Ali, “a man of independence and American originality who would transcend the worlds of Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson.” A son of the black middle class, the irrepressible Cassius Clay, named for a nineteenth century abolitionist who inherited a plantation and forty slaves, was conceded a diploma by a principal who recognized his boxing skills early. (The principal is quoted as having remarked, “Do you think I’m going to be the principal of a school that Cassius Clay didn’t finish? Why, in one night, he’ll make more money than the principal and all you teachers make in a year.”)

The principal proved a prophet. At fifteen, Clay sparred with Willie Pastrano, a highly regarded light heavyweight, while the famous handler Angelo Dundee watched. Dundee, who would become Ali’s trainer, stopped the sparring, pleading that Pastrano was stale. Pastrano is supposed to have retorted that “the kid beat the hell out of me.”

The comet never veered in its path upward. Remnick covers his man’s two-year taunting of Liston in a few deftly selected set pieces. Although admitting afterward that he feared the menacing champion with the intimidating stare, the then-challenger, as he would do years later against such formidable opponents as George Foreman and Joe Frazier, always mounted a strategy. He never forgot that Sonny Liston had learned during years in prison to fear the “crazies”—so Clay would act crazy. Liston, to an extent not even realized by his young foe, never had a chance.

Other parts of Muhammad Ali’s worldwide appeal make King of the World an essential book for students of America in the 1960’s: Ali’s resistance to stereotyping, leading to his conversion to the Nation of Islam; and his open defiance of his draft board during the Vietnam War, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison and a heavy fine, a decision reversed by the Supreme Court. Despite vindication, Ali was unable to fight during the three-year-long appeal process, at a cost of millions of dollars in gate receipts and endorsements.

Despite his book’s subtitle—“The Rise of an American Hero”—Remnick allows the warts to show. As D. Keith Mano points out, Ali put Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam on the American spiritual map. However, loyalty to one spiritual leader led to a rending disloyalty to another. Malcolm X became personal apostle to Cassius Clay, and Clay converted to Islam. When, after his tour to Mecca, Malcolm began thinking in universal terms that no longer included hating whites, Elijah Muhammad repudiated him and persuaded Ali to follow suit. Although Ali, perhaps more than anyone, should have understood an apostasy such as Malcolm’s, only his onetime friend’s martyrdom restored Ali’s deep regard.

Perhaps the book’s major contribution is to demonstrate that while much of Ali’s appeal derived from boxing, his is a story that reaches far beyond. Ring physician Ferdie Pacheco, who left Ali’s entourage when his warnings about brain damage were ignored, put it best when referring to Ali’s crippling Parkinson’s syndrome: “Ali and boxing are two different subjects. The only thing that Ali did that was pure boxing was the tragic end, which all boxers have if they’ve been too good and won’t quit.”

Among “old-school” sports aficionados, boxing’s have been the most fervent. From the tainted 1927 “slow-count” victory of Gene Tunney over Jack Dempsey to the 1998 restoration of Mike Tyson’s license after he had been banned for biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear, boxing fans have always had to face up to scandals and controversy. For almost two decades, Ali made wonderment a component of violence, for he, like Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche, “was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCV, September 15, 1998, p. 172.

Library Journal. CXXIII, October 1, 1998, p. 104.

Money. XXVII, November, 1998, p. 207.

National Review. L, November 9, 1998, p. 59.

The New York Times. November 17, 1998, B1, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, October 25, 1998, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, October 5, 1998, p. 68.

Sports Illustrated. LXXXIX, October 19, 1998, p. R16.

Time. CLI, November 2, 1998, p. 97.

The Wall Street Journal. October 21, 1998, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, October 18, 1998, p. 1.

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