King Of The World

Hal Hinson reviews 'King of the World: Muhammad Ali And The Rise Of An American Hero' by David Remnick"

By Hal Hinson

Published November 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| In the preface to his collection "The Devil Problem and Other True Stories," David Remnick writes: "Reporters are interested above all ... in stories." If so, then Remnick has lived a charmed life. In terms of sheer drama and significance, no story in our collective lifetime compares to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Remnick covered for the Washington Post and used as the basis of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Lenin's Tomb." With his latest book, "King of the World," the author's subject is not only the most heroic sports figure of the 20th century, but also, as Remnick puts it, "one of the most compelling and electric American figures of the age."

The result is a book that's strong in its grasp of social forces but also sensitive in attention to human detail. What drew Remnick -- who was recently named editor of the New Yorker -- to his subject is not difficult to understand. "I wanted to write about the way [Ali had] created himself in the early sixties," the author writes, "the way a gangly kid from Louisville managed to become ... a molder of his age and a reflection of it."

"King of the World" is a book about a boxer, not a book about boxing. Remnick is most interested in what happens outside the ring. When Remnick begins his story, Muhammad Ali is still Cassius Clay, and must share the stage with two of his most fearsome opponents, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. Patterson, Remnick writes, was the Good Negro, "an approachable and strangely fearful man, a deferential champion of civil rights, integration, and Christian decency," while Liston, "a veteran of the penitentiary system before he came to the ring," reluctantly took on the role of the Bad Negro. Each represented a stereotype Ali would ultimately transcend. "I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man," Ali tells the author. "I had to show that to the world."

Remnick's deft staging and insight make familiar events seem fresh in the retelling. Less well-traveled territory -- Ali's relationship with the Nation of Islam, his friendship with (and ultimate repudiation of) Malcolm X and the transition from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali -- is also handled well. Remnick only follows Ali's story through the champion's 1967 refusal to enter the armed forces. ("Man," he famously said, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong.") He saves his most impassioned writing for the fight Ali wages against the American military. As a result of his stand, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. However, the real cost for his refusal was something like $10 million in purses and endorsements. What was worse, Remnick writes, it also cost him his title. "His title, which he had coveted from the time he was twelve."

Visiting the 54-year-old Ali on his Michigan farm, Remnick finds that the three-time heavyweight champion of the world thinks about death "all the time now." Suffering severely from Parkinson's, Ali has been robbed of his most powerful weapon -- his voice. And yet he has not been silenced. Of the few remaining icons of the '60s, Remnick observes, Ali is by far the most adored. "He hit people for a living, and, yet, by middle age he would be a symbol not merely of courage, but of love, of decency, even a kind of wisdom." With "King of the World," David Remnick has written a great book about Muhammad Ali -- a book that is worthy of its subject.

Hal Hinson

A former film critic for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson reviews books and movies from his home in West Hollywood.

MORE FROM Hal Hinson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------