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 Ali’s boxing license was rescinded twice: in 1965, when he announced his membership in the Nation of Islam; and again in 1967, after he refused to be inducted into the Army to fight in Vietnam,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.
Why focus on these particular years, out of the entire long arc of Ali’s career? Because this was the moment when a loudmouthed kid from Jim Crow Kentucky born Cassius Marcellus Clay became Muhammad Ali. This was also a time when the sociopolitical climate in America changed radically, and heavyweight prizefighting was a significant indicator of those changes, especially the shifting attitudes toward race. This was the time of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi; Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery; the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X; the Watts riots; and the first US Marine landing in South Vietnam.
The main body of the book begins and ends with Floyd Patterson, cast in the role of the “Good Negro” in the racial drama of prizefighting. Before his title defense against Sonny Liston in 1962, Patterson was supported by the NAACP and the leaders of the civil rights movement as “a civil rights man, an integrationist, a reform-minded gentleman,” while Liston was widely portrayed as a thug who’d been convicted of armed robbery. President Kennedy invited Patterson to the White House to tell him he had to beat Liston because the future of civil rights hung in the balance. When Patterson fought Ali three years later, he said that Ali had “taken the championship…and given it to the Black Muslims, who don’t want to be a part of our world,” and claimed that beating Ali “would be my contribution to civil rights.”
Patterson was “a race man, but one whom enlightened white men could accept, could talk to.” The great poet and playwright Amiri Baraka denigrated Patterson at the time as an “honorary” white man and celebrated Liston as a threat, “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world.” In his 1962 autobiography, Victory over Myself, Patterson said, “I am just part of the social history of our time and our country, and I can’t lag behind it–or run too far ahead of it. If you keep walking around with the bitterness in you, sooner or later it’s got to turn into a pain that makes you want to strike out at the injustice. I would never want to do that.” But much later Patterson would tell Remnick, “I came to love Ali. I came to see that I was a fighter and he was history.”
The press generally pitched the Patterson-Liston fight as “the Good Negro versus the Threatening Negro,” a scenario that Liston understood perfectly. “A boxing match is like a cowboy movie,” he said. “There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys. That’s what people pay for–to see the bad guys get beat. So I’m the bad guy. But I change things. I don’t get beat.”
And he didn’t, with a vengeance. It took him only two minutes and six seconds to knock Patterson out in their first fight and two minutes and ten seconds to do it again in the rematch ten months later. Cassius Clay went to where Liston was training for the second Patterson fight to try to bait Liston into a fight. He was successful, and the fight was set for February 25, 1964.
Remnick spends the first quarter of this book describing, in the context of the Patterson-Liston fights, the world of prizefighting, BC: Before Clay. He details the control the Mafia had of every aspect of the fight game then and the reasons this monopoly was beginning to break up just as Clay appeared on the scene. With numerous examples from the boxing press of the time, he vividly evokes the generational conflict that was beginning to arise among sportswriters, presaging the larger generational storm to come.
The extraordinary, irresistibly unlikely story of Muhammad Ali’s early life has led many good writers (and a multitude of lesser ones) over the cliffs of hyperbole and bombast. Remnick’s no-nonsense approach serves him well here. He often seems to possess the journalistic equivalent of perfect pitch, landing on the right telling detail. In his journalistic evenhandedness, Remnick manages to avoid both hagiography and pathography–the Scylla and Charybdis of the biographer’s craft–as he tells the tale of a true American hero, set in the time before hardly anyone (other than Ali himself) recognized him as one. This gives the narrative a pleasurable anthelic charge.
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.