David Remnick opens his enthralling look at Muhammad Ali’s early life, King of the World (Random House), with a turning point – the first bout between Sonny Liston and Ali, who was still known as Cassius Clay.
The Feb. 25, 1964 fight was the beginning of the end of Liston’s tragic career and was the night Clay, a huge underdog with fast fists and a quicker tongue, burst into stardom by capturing the heavyweight title. He eventually cracked the barriers of boxing’s realm to become the world’s most recognized athlete and an American icon.
That night brings together the themes Remnick examines in the next 300 pages: America’s racial tensions and the civil rights movement; the rise of the Nation of Islam and its snaring of Ali; the Mafia influence on boxing; the vicious and often biased views of the press; and naturally the stories of the fighters themselves, especially the charismatic Ali.
Remnick puts you there the night the fortunes of a sport, a nation and two men changed. Clay is there with his gorgeous speed and bouncing feet. The bruising Liston is there too, a burdened champion with ties to the Mafia, who Remnick brilliantly describes as a “man who’d never gotten a favor out of life and never given one out.”
Remnick’s book is not just about boxing – it contains so much more. Boxing is the epicenter, but the tale fans out, rattling the major events of the 1960s from the Vietnam war to the life of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.
But the boxers are at the heart of everything. The first part of Remnick’s book is dedicated to Liston and Floyd Patterson – who Remnick paints as two sad characters caught in boxing’s web. Remnick describes Patterson as a talented fighter with a terrible fear of losing. He gut-wrenchingly describes Patterson sitting alone in his apartment for weeks after losing fights.
Liston was troubled too, but in a different sense. He was a man who could never get untangled from the Mafia or a slippery past that included stints in prison and work as a hired thug. Remnick shows Liston to be a tremendous fighter that the devils of boxing used and spit out.
But the character that dominates the book, as he dominates most things, is Ali. Remnick tracks Ali’s young life and his rise as a boxer, occasionally swerving off to give background on the major figures in Ali’s life and of the time. Remnick’s book stops after Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam war, was stripped of his title and sat out of boxing for three years.
If Remnick can be criticized at all, it is for cutting the book short. Refusing the draft because he believed fighting in Vietnam would have violated the tenets of Islam could be Ali’s most honorable and best known act. Ali missed three of the best years of his boxing career and lost millions of dollars. While Remnick discusses the motivations for Ali’s draft refusal at the very end of the book, a further examination of Ali’s sacrifice for his beliefs, especially in light of today’s money-driven athletes, would have added to an already wonderful read.
But what shines through in Remnick’s book is Ali’s charisma. He was a man so charming, funny and genuine that he transcended his sport.
Many hated Ali, especially early in his career. He was brash and confident and took every opportunity to remind anyone who would listen that he was “the greatest.” Remnick doesn’t shy away from pointing out Ali’s faults – examining his academic troubles for instance. Yet Ali’s problems humanize “the king” and even help his image.
Remnick is editor of the New Yorker and won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s Tomb.
His style is not poetic, but he has moments of beautiful character description. He also should be commended for his research. The amount of information Remnick collected from old articles and videos, and numerous interviews allows him to weave a fantastic tale.
King of the World is not just for boxing fans. It is a rich story about a tumultuous time in our history and a man whose greatness rose above it all.