Floating Like a Butterfly...
Although Remnick does not shy away from probing some of the darker shadows of Ali's ambition and egoism, he is perhaps best at conveying the sheer exuberance of the young Ali and the giddy excitement he incited in others, the sense that anything might happen. Ali was clearly conscious, early on, of the show business/box office appeal of his antics, but it is also clear that the outrageous claims, predictions and bragging were the outward, theatrical signs of a prodigious projective imagination and will. This is someone who, after his very first awkward, untrained sparring match at age 12, announced that he would become "the greatest of all time"--and then did! Ali has always been ahead of himself, projecting into the future and then doing whatever it takes to get there, to become what he has imagined for himself. In this way, too, he's always been ahead of his time, imagining what America could become, changing what America is. In the best of times, it seemed that this ferocious imagination was so big that it might actually include us all.
Even as Remnick goes to great lengths to distance himself (and his publisher, Random House) from Ali's autobiography, The Greatest--ghostwritten by Richard Durham, the editor of the Nation of Islam newspaper Muhammad Speaks, and published by Random House twenty-five years ago--because it mixed "fact and folklore...in the service of Elijah Muhammad's agenda," and "strained the limits of belief as it tried to create a kind of Paul Bunyan story for the Nation of Islam," Ali's enduring devotion to the Nation remains a central element of Remnick's own account.
Ali first encountered members of the Nation of Islam in 1959 on the South Side of Chicago, when he was 17; he went back to Chicago in 1962 to meet with Elijah Muhammad. That same year he met Malcolm X in Detroit. Ali formally joined the Nation of Islam in September 1963 and announced it publicly five months later, at the time of the Liston fight in Miami. Ali's conversion to Islam was widely assailed as a heretical attack on the bases of Western Civilization. Malcolm X told Ali before the Liston fight, "This fight is the truth. It's the Cross and the Crescent fighting in a prize ring--for the first time. It's a modern Crusades--a Christian and a Muslim facing each other with television to beam it off Telstar for the whole world to see what happens." When the promoter threatened to cancel the fight if Ali didn't step away from the Nation, Ali said, "My religion's more important to me than the fight." The promoter finally relented only when Malcolm X agreed to leave Miami and return only the night of the fight, to occupy seat number 7 at ringside.
Notwithstanding their bitter parting before Malcolm's murder, over loyalty to Elijah Muhammad, Ali's debt to Malcolm can hardly be overestimated ("When the student is ready, the teacher will appear"), and the correspondences between Ali's current spiritual questand Malcolm's epiphanies toward the end of his life are unmistakable.
In his "Notes on the Invention of Malcolm X," Gerald Early writes, "I am convinced that the rise in interest in Malcolm X as a public icon, as a figure in popular culture, can be traced to the descent of Muhammad Ali as a public figure after the early nineteen eighties. Because they were both militant Muslims, and because they were friends for a time who fell out rather distastefully, I believe they are always yoked together in the public's mind: the two public troublemakers, disturbers of the peace. But Ali's stance against the Vietnam War, combined with his flair and artistry as a champion boxer...made him a more potent symbol for an immense heroism."
Early in his book, Remnick writes, "The history of fighters is the history of men who end up damaged." But he goes on to show how Ali has changed and persevered. The historical body of the book is framed by a prologue and epilogue that both portray Ali in his present condition. His last words to Remnick include these: "Sleep is a rehearsal for death. One day you wake up and it's Judgment Day. I don't worry about disease. Don't worry about anything. Allah will protect me. He always does."
Remnick's contemporary retelling of "the Rise of an American Hero" is both a tool of remembrance and a goad to the future--a fitting tribute to a great American adept and provocateur.