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King of the World by David Remnick

June 10, 2012

I remember watching the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics on television, seeing Muhammad Ali stand proudly, his arm shaking wildly from Parkinson’s as he lit the Olympic torch in front of a roaring crowd in Atlanta. Today, we put Ali on a pedestal with the greatest American heroes—not just the groundbreaking athletes, but the icons of American achievement. But that wasn’t always the case. Ali (and Cassius Clay before he changed his name) was draped in controversy through most of his career. It’s hard to imagine that as he stepped into the ring for his early title fights, he was often met with a chorus of boos. He was despised by boxing purists for his style and his braggadocio. He was feared and reviled for his outspoken politics and his strange religious beliefs. He was brash, arrogant and hard-headed. He was a rebel in nearly every aspect of his life. Every sport has their heroes and their villains. To many people, for much of his career, Ali was a transcendent villain.

Rather than a traditional biography (there are plenty of Muhammad Ali biographies), Remnick focuses on the fights between Ali and Sonny Liston. And to understand those fights, you have to understand the Liston-Patterson fights. That part of the story is as interesting, if not more so, than the story of Ali. Floyd Patterson was a well-respected, polite man— a deferential black man, “acceptable” to those who believed black men had their place. He didn’t buck the system. Liston, on the other hand, was from an abusive family, had been in and out of prison, was brutal, mean, a criminal controlled by the mob. Remnick sets the Liston-Patterson fights up as a pivotal moment in boxing history, one that would define the character of the heavyweight championship. Patterson was the hero, Liston the villain. Liston won both fights handily. (In one of the saddest moments in the book, Patterson, who had his pilots license, slips out after the second loss and charters a jet to fly himself from Vegas back to Chicago, a long, lonely overnight flight across the dark country below him.)

And then came Cassius Clay, who would somehow be even more objectionable than Liston. Especially early on, Cassius Clay’s mouth preceded him. He rapped before there was rap. He taunted his opponents. He made bold predictions. If you despise the trash talk that has become so standard in modern-day combat sports, you can thank Ali. He was all about the antics. He showed up with his bus and a bullhorn outside of Sonny Liston’s in the middle of the night. He faked insanity at weigh-ins. At times, he seemed a man out of control. But he always knew what he was doing. He was a showman, a tactician and a strategist, inside the ring and out. Getting into his opponent’s head, baiting him to fight on emotion rather than strategy, that was all part of the plan.

Ali shocked the world when he beat Liston. Sonny was a brawler. He hit like a sledgehammer, but he fought like a heavyweight. Ali did not. He fought like a lightweight, bouncing in and out, circling always. His incredible reflexes and constant head movement kept Liston lunging and, eventually, wore him out. It was partly Ali’s skill, but it was as much his style. Liston had never fought anyone like Ali. Nobody had.

Outside the ring, Clay was just as polarizing. He was outspoken on issues of politics and civil rights. He buddied up with Malcolm X, joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali (when Malcolm split with the Nation, Ali sided with Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader—he would later regret cutting Malcolm out of his life). He would eventually be stripped of his heavyweight title when he refused the Viet Nam draft.

If Patterson was one type of character and Liston another, Ali’s approach (to public life, at least) most resembled a third fighter—Jack Johnson. Here, again, Remnick gives us context—not just Ali’s story, but his significance at the intersection of boxing and civil rights. “Boxing in America was born of slaves,” Remnick begins the fourth part of the book. Slave owners used to have their biggest, strongest slaves fight each other as a form of entertainment. It was thus a black man’s sport (if being forced to fight could be considered a sport) until whites decided they wanted to box too. Only the white fighters didn’t want to fight black fighters.

That was why, for much of his career, although he was clearly the top contender, Jack Johnson was not allowed to fight for the heavyweight championship. This was early in the 20th century, 50 years before Ali. To say that racial tension ran high would be a gross understatement. Being black and being brash (Johnson was both) could get you lynched. Johnson didn’t care. He acted as he pleased, dated white women, dressed lavishly. For years, Johnson taunted the white heavyweight champ in the press until he’d riled up enough hatred to earn a title shot. He won, much to the dismay of the white boxing establishment, who immediately set out to find a “great white hope” to win back the title. Eventually, Jim Jeffries, a white, undefeated former heavyweight champ who had ducked Johnson for years, was coaxed out of retirement to take the title back for whites. Here is the scene as Remnick describes it:

 When Johnson finally climbed into the ring to fight Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, the crowd began its chant of “Kill the nigger!” A band struck up “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” If this displeased Johnson, he did not show it in the ring. Johnson destroyed Jeffries, humiliated him both fistically and verbally, taunting him and his cornermen throughout the fight. “Hardly a blow had been struck when I knew that I was Jeff’s master,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography.

When Johnson’s triumph was announced around the country, there were riots in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and the District of Columbia. In Houston, a white man slashed the throat of a black man named Charles Williams for cheering Johnson too enthusiastically. In Washington, D.C., a group of blacks stabbed two white men to death.

The description of the ensuing violence continues.

I include this passage because, first of all, it is hard to imagine such shocking violence over a boxing match. But secondly, it demonstrates that boxing has a legacy of significance that transcends the sport itself. Johnson spit in the eye of a racist public. He was outspoken, courageous and defiant. He could not be denied his humanity, his identity, his dignity in the ring. He proved beyond a doubt—the evidence was overwhelming and empirical—that he was better than this white hero.

Of all the boxers to come along—the polite Patterson, the rough and tumble Liston, the self-deprecating and likable Joe Louis—it was Jack Johnson with whom Muhammad Ali most identified. As an athlete, he was expected to stay above the fray and remain focused during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. He did neither. Ali had grown up in Jim Crow south, was denied service in restaurants even as an Olympic athlete, as a heavyweight champion. He was not going to keep mum about what was happening. So he did what he thought was right. I don’t think he was always right. There’s a lot to not like about Ali—much more than I would have expected. But he has my admiration as a man who stood up for what he believed in, and I believe the place he holds on that American pedestal is well-deserved. In King of the World, Remnick gives us the context to appreciate Ali and, whether you agree with him or not, understand just how heroic that stance was.

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