"King of the World," by David Remnick. Random House. 326 pages. $25.
On the night of Feb. 25, 1964, in a boxing ring in Miami Beach, one of the most compelling and complicated figures of the 20th century arrived with the whomp of an uppercut.
Today, of course, Muhammad Ali is mostly beloved, a heroic icon, an athletic statesman and worldwide ambassador, best remembered in recent years for lighting the torch to begin the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, his hands trembling from Parkinson's disease, the proud warrior refusing to let age or disease defeat him. The world cheered.
If nothing else, and there is much else in this fascinating book, David Remnick reminds us that Muhammad Ali was once Cassius Clay. And the Cassius Clay of 35 years ago was a loud, boastful self-creation who became, in Remnick's words, "one of the most electric of American characters, a molder of his age and a reflection of it."
Beloved? Hardly. In that 1964 Miami Beach fight, much of America, especially white America, wanted nothing more than to see Sonny Liston button "the Louisville Lip" for good. And Liston was no hero.
He was portrayed as a savage, uneducated, mob-controlled thug with a criminal past and a doomed future. But at least the country understood what it was getting in Sonny Liston. Cassius Clay was unique, a phenomenon, and nobody was quite sure what to make of him. Newspaper columnists of the day did everything but call him uppity.
Remnick traces his rise through the limited frame of five heavyweight championship fights between 1962 and 1965 - the two between Liston and Floyd Patterson, the two between Liston-Clay and then Liston-Ali, and finally, completing the circle, Ali-Patterson.
Patterson, Remnick writes, cast himself as "the Good Negro, an approachable and strangely fearful man." Liston was "the Bad Negro," a role he accepted "as he discovered he would not be permitted any other."
Ali answered to nobody. He infuriated whites and blacks alike. "I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man." And so he did. He said what he thought. He joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name. He refused to register for the draft during the Vietnam War. He was the star as television replaced newspapers as the dominant sports medium. He was as free as any man who ever breathed, and he never let anyone forget it.
"What made me is me," he once told an interviewer.
To his great credit, Remnick presents all three portraits - Patterson, Liston and Ali - in full. Patterson could be a self-righteous bore. Liston never had a chance - and he knew it. Ali could be cruel. He turned his back on Malcolm X (one of his biggest regrets), he tortured Patterson in the ring, he mercilessly stamped Joe Frazier as an Uncle Tom.
Boxing has long attracted our best social chroniclers. Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Gay Talese, A.J. Liebling, Joyce Carol Oates have each taken a shot. The drama and easy metaphors are too hard to resist. Remnick belongs in their company. He won the Pulitzer Prize for "Lenin's Tomb," and proved in his writings for the New Yorker that he is one of the nation's smartest and most eclectic journalists (he recently was named the magazine's editor, where his biggest problem will be replacing his own stories).
In "King of the World," Remnick has landed every punch, combining narrative story-telling with just the right amount of social context and analysis. The writing is seamless and engaging.
If only he had kept writing. The narrative ends abruptly with the Ali-Patterson fight. Remnick tacks on an epilogue that has a jam-everything-in-a-suitcase feel to wrap up the next 30 years. This is pure reader selfishness; imagine what Remnick could do with the classic Frazier and George Foreman fights. And why not illustrate Ali's legacy through today's athletes? When Deion Sanders dances after touchdowns, isn't that just a modern variation of, "I am the greatest."
Aw, why bother? You can't lay a glove on this book. It's worthy of a champion.
Ken Fuson, a staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years Much of that time he worked at the Des Moines Register.
Pub Date: 11/22/98