Why Should I Read...?
The King of the World
When people under 40 think of Muhammad Ali, the image that comes to mind is probably the national--or world--treasure, bearing his illness with dignity and commanding universal respect and affection. Those slightly older may remember his epic boxing matches with Joe Frazier and George Foreman in the 1970s.
Remnick's biography goes back still further, concentrating on his early career, particularly his first world title fight against the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston in 1963. Sometimes I'm asked whether sports books are important enough, or serious enough, to deserve critical attention. The King of the World is one example of why they are.
I'm not really a boxing fan--there's something highly disturbing about watching two invariably black men inflicting brain damage on each other for the entertainment of a predominantly white audience--but this is a compelling book, because it's about much more than boxing. In the early 1960s, Ali--or Cassius Clay, as he was then--was a hugely reviled figure. Conservatives despised him for getting above his station (with his ready wit and showman's personality, he just did not know his place), while liberals felt his association with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam undermined the civil rights movement. (Ali's commitment to black separatism caused great ill-feeling with the more integrationist Floyd Patterson, culminating in a merciless beating for Patterson in a 1965 world title fight. Patterson consistently referred to Ali as Clay long after his conversion to Islam).
If all this were not enough to seal Ali's unpopularity, he then had the temerity to refuse to be drafted to Vietnam, a move which seems more courageous and principled now than it must have looked at the time. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietkong", he memorably said.
Remnick's book, in focusing on the point at which Muhammad Ali invented himself, illuminates not only a fascinating character--more deserving of our admiration than our pity, despite the illness that overtook him as he fought on too long--but a pivotal period in US history. The final word should go to Ali himself:
I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could—financial and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality. As a man who wouldn’t embarrass them. As man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam. And if all that’s too much , then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.