King of the World
By David Remnick
Verso, 310 pages, $22.
By Mike Marquesse
Verso, 310 pages, $22.
When a trembling Muhammad Ali held the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, he lit more than a flame--he sparked a renewed interest in his legendary boxing career. That same year, Leon Gast's remarkable documentary, When We Were Kings, resurrected the Ali of 1974, a fighter coming out of a ring exile of more than three years to defeat George Foreman in the famed "Rumble in the Jungle." The Ali renaissance continues this year as the media gets nostalgic about the last hundred years. George Plimpton is slated to write about Ali for Life magazine's issue on the "100 Most Influential People of the Century," and there's no doubt the boxer will rank high on more sports-oriented lists, like ESPN's televised accounting of the century's top 50 athletes.
These tributes are well deserved but troubling because they tend to be more about reconciling the weary, middle-aged fighter who appeared in Atlanta with the brash young heavyweight champion who captured the world's imagination years ago. Recent accounts of Ali's accomplishments often take on the feel of a eulogy--as if we have gained enough historical distance to view the fighter as a symbol instead of a man. Three recent books reflect and critique the debate over his rightful place in the American collective consciousness.
Gerald Early, editor of The Muhammad Ali Reader, introduces his collection of previously published articles from the past three decades by bluntly stating, "There exists a great fear today, or at least there should, that Muhammad Ali . . . may become absolutely overesteemed by the society in which he lives." Early cites the ways the boxer was demonized for his stance against Vietnam, his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, and his separatist attitudes about black and white America, and claims this new nostalgia for Ali can be attributed to collective guilt over the fighter's failing health. "He was severely maimed by and for our racial sins, our racist use of the system against him."
The articles in the Ali Reader--featuring a number of literary heavyweights (including George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe, Wole Soyinka, and Joyce Carol Oates) along with sports articles and abridged interviews--chronicle Ali's evolution from the 22-year-old heavyweight champion of the world to a permanently damaged fighter who staged too many comebacks. The power of this collection lies in Early's desire to depict the Ali of the 1980s and ‘90s as much as the young champion and conscientious objector we've come to canonize.
Unfortunately, this book didn't receive as much attention as David Remnick's King of the World, published this past winter, which serves as a testament to the power of the Ali myth. Remnick, a former sportswriter for The Washington Post and current editor of The New Yorker, writes from a fan's perspective and grounds his account of Ali in the 1960s within the Floyd Patterson/Sonny Liston morality play of "good Negro" against "bad Negro." Remnick claims Ali transcended these stereotypes and consciously forged a new identity that defied the expectations of the boxing world and white America itself. In the introduction to the book, the author writes: "I'd come up to [Ali's farm in] Michigan to see him because I wanted to write about the way he'd created himself in the early ‘60s, the way a gangly kid from Louisville managed to become on of the most electric American characters, a molder of his age and a reflection of it."
Remnick's notion of identity, although it works in the time frame he presents, is ultimately too simple an assessment of Ali. It gives the boxer too much credit for predicting how the world would perceive him and clearly fails when the fighter's later career is taken into account. Ali's characterization of George Foreman and Joe Frazier as "white hopes" in the 1970s not only casts himself as the "bad Negro" stereotype (as Liston and subsequent fighters such as Mike Tyson were cast by the white media) but also demonstrates that Ali either did not care to transcend these racial identities or simply didn't see them in the first place.
King of the World is filled with a great deal of enthusiasm and an ear for Ali's legendary wit, but these stylistic turns show how much Remnick is indebted to the power of nostalgia. By framing his story with the tale of a recent pilgrimage to Ali's Michigan farm, where the fighter entertained him with magic tricks and whispered jokes, it becomes clear Remnick himself wants to believe this man to was (and is) in control of his life. Besides being somewhat wide-eyed, Remnick's account is remarkably similar to Davis Miller's 1989 article "My Dinner With Ali," which appears in Gerald Early's anthology.
In fact, a number of Remnick's descriptions are available first-hand in The Muhammad Ali Reader, only details of the events behind the events--such as a drunken Norman Mailer harassing Sonny Liston at the press conference after Liston won the heavyweight title--add something new to the tales told in King of the World. Whether or not these details are helpful depends on whether one sees them as embellishments to established tales or Remnick's own bid to be in the company of writers such as Mailer and Plimpton, who actually covered Ali as the tales that are retold in King of the World originally unfolded. If we go with the latter interpretation, it seems Remnick's book is as much autobiography as historical biography.
A far superior account of Ali in the 1960s arrives this July when Mike Marqusee's Redemption Song lands in stores. Although Ali is at the center of the narrative, the fighter is rarely quoted and accounts of his matches are minimal. Instead, Marqusee enlists cultural figures such as singer and communist Paul Robeson, R&B legend Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and even Bob Dylan to explain the origins of Muhammad Ali, his relations to other heroes in a racially unjust society, and his impact on peoplle around the world.
While much of this stunning book is dedicated to the 1960s, Marqusee offers new insight into When We Were Kings and even into the difference between Ali, who stood on the courage of his convictions, and a contemporary athlete such as Michael Jordan, who stands behind his convictions of commodification. In avoiding nostalgia and locating Ali in a larger cultural context, Marqusee adds a new dimension to a familiar subject. Redemption Song and The Muhammad Ali Reader powerfully counter the desire to eulogize the fighter by noting that Muhammad Ali is a human being, not an icon, and argue that his humanity is what makes his achievement all the more impressive.
ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN CITY PAPER, JUNE 16, 1999 back