Eric_W's Reviews > King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

King of the World by David Remnick
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Apr 04, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: biography-memoir
Read in January, 2001

David Remnick is perhaps best known for his award-winning work on Russia since the collapse of Communism (Lenin's Tomb and Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia). His most recent book deals with Cassius Clay and his transformation into Mohammed Ali. "Boxing in America was born of slavery." Southern plantation owners would often pit their strongest slaves against each other, sometimes to near death. Frederick Douglass objected to the sport because he believed it "muffled the spirit of insurrection. Mohammad Ali had mixed feelings about the sport that made him a public figure, too. Two black men beating up on each other was too intense a reminder of other times. Few who lived through the turbulent sixties have lukewarm feelings about Ali. He became a symbol of rebellion against the oppression of a white society that was reluctant to change. He invented not just a new style of boxing, but spoke loudly to his black brothers when he embraced Elijah Muhammad's black separatist nation. His message to the white community was powerful: "I don't have to be what you want me to be" — a message many in the white community still haven't grasped yet.

The Vietnam War provided the justification for both sides of the issue to love or hate Ali after he refused the draft on religious grounds, thereby sacrificing millions of dollars in defense of the championship he had won. His decision was made when virtually no other celebrity was taking a similar stance, yet he was willing to stand up and represent his black brothers who were giving their lives in Vietnam in disproportionate numbers.

The boxing world contamination of the fifties and sixties was spread beyond the boxers and their managers. The mob had always enjoyed a monopoly on boxing because they, like the boxers themselves, were outsiders. Only a fool or a desperate man would make his living getting hit in the head. Boxers were easy targets. It was not uncommon for sportswriters to receive envelopes filled with cash in order to receive more favorable treatment. Boxing was not unique. Baseball columnists were wined and dined and supplied with all sorts of perquisites to influence their stories. The writers themselves were not investigated during the Kefauver investigations into the boxing world of crime because the senator knew how important it was to keep journalists on his side. As it was the newspaper world took a dim view of the investigations, perhaps because they threatened to derail their gravy train.

In 1960, as Cassius Clay, he became famous as the U.S. Olympic boxing champ. He was so proud he wore the medal to bed. He returned to Louisville a hero and to a parade. When he tried to get a sandwich at a local Woolworth's, however, he was refused service. (Even in 1978 at the height of his fame, renaming a street after him only just barely passed the city council by one vote.) A group of prominent white businessmen put together a promotional package. Most of them knew nothing about boxing, but thought it would be fun. The poetic doggerel that became synonymous with Ali was part of the "great American tradition of narcissistic self-promotion, a descendant of Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill by way of the dozens. " Ali was fully aware of what he was doing. A meeting with Gorgeous George, a forty-six-year-old wrestler who engaged in vitriol against his opponents, had impressed him. Ali was astute enough to see how it filled the arenas with people. "I saw fifteen thousand people coming to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, this is a good idea!" He said later, "Where do you think "I’d be next week if I didn't know how to shout and holler and make the public take notice? I'd be poor and I'd probably be down in my hometown, washing windows or running an elevator and saying 'yassuh' and 'nawsuh' and knowing my place."

Perhaps Ali's greatest achievement was his disavowal of the white world's expectations. Remnick contrasts Patterson and Liston with Ali. Floyd Patterson was the great conciliator, the white black man, if you will. Sonny Liston was the stereotypic bad black man. Importantly, both showed deference to white society and were expected to remain aloof from the racial upheaval going on around them. The principled stand on Vietnam had profound implications. During his exile he lost his speed. He learned that he could take punches, though, and he absorbed many in the fights that followed. He won a lot but took incredible punishment. Soon his kidneys were affected and his brain was damaged, leading eventually to Parkinson's Disease. Today he is but a mere shadow of his former ebullient self. It says a great deal for America's need to mythologize and to eulogize its athletic heroes that Ali is now mostly regarded with "misty affection." Perhaps that's sad, for it trivializes the accomplishments of an authentic American hero.
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