Floating Like a Butterfly...
In October in Las Vegas, Mike Tyson went before the Nevada Athletic Commission to ask it to reinstate his boxing license, which had been suspended after Tyson took a bite out of Evander Holyfield's ear during their heavyweight title bout in June 1997. Tyson's lawyer claimed his client was contrite, a panel of psychologists pronounced him more or less sane and his new wife described him as a loving husband. Then, for the grand finale, two star witnesses were called to speak on Tyson's behalf: Magic Johnson and Muhammad Ali.
Magic Johnson volunteered to counsel Tyson on money matters and guide him in his social relations. Muhammad Ali had written a statement to be read by his wife, Lonnie, as he sat motionless beside her. In it, Ali said that it had been painful for him, over the years, to observe the younger champion's travails without being able to help. He said he had always hoped that Tyson would reach out to him, but the appeal never came, and Ali did not feel it was right to offer advice unless asked. He noted that when he was younger, he hadn't much appreciated unbidden advice either. "So I didn't push. There is an old proverb that says, 'When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.'" Then Ali appealed directly to the commissioners: "Let this young man earn a living. Give him a chance to redeem himself."
As Ali's statement was read and Tyson listened, two very different eras were evoked and seemed to circle each other warily. Ali's boxing license was rescinded twice: in 1965, when he announced his membership in the Nation of Islam; and again in 1967, after he refused to be inducted into the Army to fight in Vietnam, on moral and religious grounds ("Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong"). Tyson's three-year enforced layoff came after he was convicted of rape. Before his disastrous title fight with Holyfield, Tyson made a pilgrimage to Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas to put flowers on Sonny Liston's grave and proclaim his identification with Liston. But it was Muhammad Ali who visited Tyson in prison, when Tyson was reading Malcolm X, meeting Malcolm's widow and converting to Islam. Ali's appeal on Tyson's behalf in Las Vegas was the voice of experience, pleading from the past, across a generation.
David Remnick has written a book on Muhammad Ali for the present. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero focuses on a very brief period in the early sixties--roughly, late 1962 to late 1965. Only five heavyweight title fights are dealt with in depth: the first Patterson-Liston fight on September 25, 1962, and their rematch on July 22, 1963; the first Liston-Ali fight on February 25, 1964, and their rematch on May 25, 1965; and the first Ali-Patterson fight on November 22, 1965.
Taking this approach at this time was risky, as Remnick acknowledges at the end of his book: "The heavyweight championship fights of the early sixties fall in a strange crevice between history and recent events. To readers over forty, the early Ali fights are the stuff of early (or not-so-early) memory. To those who are younger, they are as distant as Agincourt." Remnick--who was a toddler when Sonny Liston first fought Floyd Patterson and a first grader when Ali fought Patterson--is clearly writing for his own generation, and his approach is designed for maximum contemporary relevance.
With this goal in mind, the book faced another major obstacle. After giving an account of the literary contest between Norman Mailer and James Baldwin over the first Patterson-Liston fight, Remnick observes: "At the remove of nearly forty years, when boxing has become a marginal event in American life, all this symbol-mongering heaped on the shoulders of two men belting each other in a ring for money seems faintly ridiculous." To make this book work, Remnick needed to bring the previous era to life in terms that would resonate today.
Unlike Remnick's previous book, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994), King of the World is based entirely on retrospective research: a thorough rereading of the contemporaneous and later literature, viewing and analysis of tapes of the fights and interviews with survivors. The result is much more than just a rehashing of all the old stories. It is a pointed reconsideration of the significance of these events for our time, especially in our current confusions about race.