Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why Should I Read...?

The King of the World
David Remnick,1998

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:


Unknown said...

I've always been hugely interested in Ali (my father was a real fan and I am kinda named after him...) - what an amazing figure he was. I've read Norman Mailer's book about The Rumble in the Jungle but I must look this one up too. My Xmas wishlist is getting out of hand!

Tim Stretton said...

If you've any interest at all in Ali, this is a must-read: beautifully written, not wholly uncritical, but always tempered with sympathy. Mailer is a bit overheated for my taste, but Remnick never gets in the way of the story.

Good job he converted to Islam, otherwise you might have been called Cassia...

Frances Garrood said...

It sounds fascinating, Tim. I love that last quote!