33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Remnick is smart enough not to contribute just another Ali biography to the shelves, and instead focuses his efforts on Ali 1960 - 1965...from his post-Olympic days through to the second fight with Liston. These are the years when Ali became Ali...the champ at the height of his powers.
But there's a special bonus in this book - a good portion of it deals with Sonny Liston. You talk about your seminal 20th Century characters. They don't get any more interesting than this guy: the abused son of a sharecropper, long stretches of imprisonment, a fight career directed by mob interests, a violent death. In short, a writer's dream. Remnick brings Liston together with Floyd Patterson (and you'll never find a greater constrast) and walks you through these two battles before turning his attention to Ali. Thus, you get a full portrait of Liston prior to encountering the force of nature that was then Cassius Clay.
The effect is a curious sympathy that you have for Liston as he enters the maelstrom developing around Ali. In most retellings, Liston is cast as the personification of evil. Remnick made me see him in a different light.
My advice for a great Ali study program:
1. Watch 'When We Were Kings' [Best documentary ever]
2. Read 'The Fight' by Norman Mailer
3. Read 'King of the World'
4. Buy any book featuring Howard Bingham's photography of Ali.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2001
David Remnick delivers a terrific biography of Muhammad Ali with "King of the World," but this book should never be mistaken for a conventional sports biography. It is also social history and a compassionate yet realistic portrait of America's guiltiest pleasure: the seamy, yet somehow sometimes heroic world of professional boxing.
The first thing that struck me when I read the book is that its first section discusses Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Clay) very little. Instead, Remnick focuses on the two boxers who helped to gave shape to Ali's legend: Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. The former was a reluctant champion from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and Remnick brings Patterson's reticence and self-doubt into full view. The latter was a street thug from an impoverished rural background, a vision of America's deepest fears about African-Americans.
Remnick details Liston's two devastating first-round demolitions of Patterson and illuminates the complicated relationship the public had with Liston. On the one hand, he was despised because of his criminal background and ties to the mob; on the other, Remnick makes clear, he was comforing because he confirmed stereotyped perceptions of black men. One of Remnick's great accompishments in the book is to humanize Liston without in the least diminishing his surly and even hateful demeanor.
With Liston the controversial heavyweight champ, the loud, abrasive, seemingly self-confident Cassius Clay, of Louisville, Kentucky, stepped into the national spotlight. Remnick displays the future champion in all his complex glory: his braggadocio, his complex relationship with white people, including his trainer and doctor, his innate intelligence that was paired with his lack of formal schooling, his ability to manipulate the press, and so on.
Interwoven into his story of how Cassius Clay literally created his life and legend and became the man we know as Muhammad Ali is excellent social history on the civil rights movement and Ali's relationship with the Muslims, including Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. It is not surprising for those of us who grew up in the '60s that sport was so mixed up with politics in Muhammad Ali's day and that he was a key figure in shaping politics. Those who do not remember the time, however, may find it enlightening to realize that there was once an athlete who paid dearly for his political beliefs: Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from the ring for four years for his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Remnick brings all of this vividly to life. He manages, in a bare 300 pages, to meld sports, politics, and history into a story that unfolds like a great heavyweight fight. Must read.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 1999
This is a great writer that can be appreciated by the boxing fan and non fan alike. At times the narrative is a bit choppy. But in the end this style adds to the reader's enjoyment as the usual biographical methods become enhanced. The title and cover pic are a little misleading : while Ali is clearly the focus much space is given to (and much is learned about) Liston, Patterson and most interestingly, the whole boxing culture....Bottom line : A great book.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2013
Pivoting on the Ali-Liston fight, Remick shapes a narrative that comes very close to rising to the transcendental dimensions that Ali's heroic and mythical life requires. It is a story of such poetic proportions that we all know it well: It is the story of a little black boy from Louisville, Kentucky who got his bike stolen, and as a result ended up in a boxing gym so that he could learn to fight well enough to be able to take his bike back from the bully that had stolen it. This little black boy would go on to become the King of the world.
It turns out that the bully in question was not just your familiar neighborhood bike thief, but Ali's own racist nation. Ali's life has become nothing if not a living metaphor of how a single moral individual should fight a thief and rapist as big and as formidable as ones own country. And racist America was a thief and a rapist -- not just one trying to steal Cassius Clay's bike -- it was trying to steal something much more important and valuable. American tried desperately, as it has succeeded doing with most black men, to steal Ali's manhood too. But try as it might-- stripping him of his chance at the title during his best years, of his means of economic survival, in trying to jail him -- it failed.
Sadly, the part of the story that Remick got wrong was the only important part: claiming that it was Ali who had re-created himself to suit the requirements of racist America instead of the other way around? Ali did no such thing! To suggest so, is not just an implicit lie; it is an explicit lie as well. By getting this part of the story bass-akwards, hate-filled racist America is again allowed to make another "clean getaway," a "literary comeback" to its own racist status quo, getting its usual moral free ride without having to pay a price, or even acknowledge that it did anything at all to destroy Ali.
With the point of view given here, racist America does not have to look itself in the mirror when it comes to Ali. It does not have to acknowledge or account for its own racist sins that repeatedly tried to derail Ali's life. Instead, Remick leaves unstated as the subtext of this narrative, that somehow, Ali "re-made himself" in a way that he then became acceptable to the same racist public that had spewed so much hate-filled venom towards him? But this is so far from the truth of the situation that one wonders how this fine well-meaning author could have gotten it so wrong?
The facts are radically contrary to the author's point of view: It was America, not Ali, that changed. It was America that first began with its hate-filled venom sharply directed at Ali, embracing both the Uncle Toms Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier, and even the graduate of the penitentiary, ex-con, Sonny Liston, over the magnetic, charismatic, athletic, virile and handsome Ali. After Ali beat America's crop of "stand-in Negro bums," it had no choice but to begrudgingly accept Ali, not the other way around.
It was America's racist ways that was forced to heel and accept and then respect Ali's religious claims, even if it did so as a last resort and only at the U.S. Supreme Court level. It was America that had to accept the name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. It was America that had to accept the fact that Malcolm X was Ali's mentor and that the Black Muslim religion was a legitimate religion and a legitimate moral force in the fight for black Civil Rights. And it was racist America that had to swallow its pride when every one of its many attempts to defeat Ali -- both inside and outside the ring -- failed.
Except for this breathtaking flaw of attributing change and re-creation to Ali instead of to racist America, where it justly belongs, Remick has written a beautiful ode, not to Ali, hut to a "falsely neutered version of Ali," the only version of a black man that American seems able to countenance.
Thus the tragedy of this otherwise beautifully written book is that it allows "racist America" to get away clean, Scot free, again, to continue its racist ways unhindered, uninhibited and unacknowledged. What a pity!
A much better story would have been the real one: That racist America stood "eye-ball-to-eye-ball" with a formidable moral force within its own borders called Muhammad Ali, and blinked. And as a result of having been made to blink, became a slightly better nation as a result. Three stars
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 1999
I'm a big boxing fan, and am fascinated with both Muhammed Ali, how he evolved from Cassisus Clay, and Sonny Liston. There's a lot of great boxing writing, however, and I thought every angle of these two had already been covered, both in facts and in their roles as mythic figures. So it was with great pleasure (and surprise) I found David Remnick's book so terrific. Besides learning new facts that only a good investigative reporter could dig up 35 years after the fact, the book read like a great story. The prose really flowed, but not in a pretentious way that took away from the subjects, and I think even non-boxing fans would enjoy the tale of when these two tragic men (though Ali wouldn't become tragic for decades)met to fight for the heavyweight crown. I plan on buying a hardcover for my boxing book collection (a shelf I'm VERY discriminating about.)Thanks David Remnick!
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2002
David Remnick's biography of Muhammad Ali covers not just the career of one extraordinary fighter, but the widely encompassing sweep of his historical time. The book begins by sharply examining heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and the unique qualities he brought to the America of his day, a quiet, soft spoken man who carried himself with dignity. Remnick then traces the rocky road to the championship for Sonny Liston, which was achieved after a stop at a federal penitentiary. Liston longed for acclaim from the public, and hoped he would get it after dispatching Patterson in their 1962 title fight in Chicago. A restless, brooding man, Liston would move from St. Louis, to Philadephia, then west to Denver and ultimately Las Vegas.
Ali's brash behavior in demanding a shot at Liston's title was part calculated strategy, part show business, boosting his recognition level all the while, building on the name value he began achieving after winning a gold medal in the light heavyweight class at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Eventually his loud bravado would convince Liston that he was actually crazy.
When Ali won the title from Liston in 1964 in Miami Beach many boxing authorities and fans thought his win a fluke. He then defeated Liston in a controversial rematch in Lewiston, Maine, a one round knockout many believed resulted from Liston lying down on the job. Remnick disagrees, quoting Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee and others in accepting that Liston happened to walk into a well-placed blow that traveled a short distance, but was substantial enough to accomplish its objective. Remnick also points out that Liston bore the fate of reaching the title after his prime, and might well have achieved a longer, more far reaching destiny as champion had the fates been kinder.
The high point of Remnick's dramatic account of a highly colorful American figure arrives when he tackles Ali's refusal to be drafted into the Army. Remnick does an excellent job of presenting and analyzing with sharp critical intelligence the forces at work during the sixties who admired Ali's stand along with those who opposed it, some of whom bitterly hated him. He does an excellent job of describing how African-Americans reacted to Ali as a fighter and a man, particularly at the critical moment when he stood up to political forces who sought to pressure him to be drafted into the Army during the highly controversial Vietnam War.
This is a book that provides a sociological panorama of Ali and his time. As such, this broad landscape is an invaluable work which enhances reader understanding of a controversial period of American history.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2001
I dislike reading biographies & autobiographies that made the central characters larger than life, or elevate them to demi-God status. This book has none of that. And yet, everything about Muhammed Ali is larger than life. The book described the circumstances & Muhammed Ali's self-belief which elevated him to a hero or anti-hero status. If the readers were David Remnick's fan, then, you would appreciate the writer's eloquent style & his in-depth research & interviews, as displayed in his work of Lenin's Tomb, which won him the revered Pulitzer's Prize. Here, Muhammed Ali (previously Cassius Clay) is depicted not simply as a boxer, but also an icon who epitomises the turbulent 60's America, a country which was divided into 2 nations, the whites & the blacks. Muhammed Ali is a symbol of defiance for his people as he refused to be drafted into the army to fight a war that's none of his concern, a symbol of beauty and skill and courage, a symbol of faith, a symnbol of racial pride, of wit, and love. He also represented boxing of the new era by not having any connection with the mobs who had the tendency to fix the fights. Moreover, Muhammed Ali disregarded the bad words that sportswriters (used to be dominated by the whites) wrote about him. As time goes on, it's fascinating to read that his undying belief changed his critics rather than the other around. He was THE man, accomplished goals that he set up to do and there were times when he doubted himself but nevertheless, with a cumulation of sheer luck and sheer persistency that he beat against all odds. Now, as he is eaten up gradually but definitely by the Parkinson's disease, he was at peace with himself thru his total devotion to Islam & its cause. To add layers or dimensions into Muhammed Ali's persona, David wrote about heavyweight champions of yesteryears particularly Floyd Patterson & Sonny Liston, & champions of the present day such as Mike Tyson & Evander Holyfield so that we would appreciate in-depth of what makes Muhammed Ali the king of the world of all times. We would also read about Muhammed Ali's life intertwined with Malcolm X's, his involvement with the Islam Nation & Elijah Muhammed, his background & relationships with his family, people that he engaged with, him being a simple & humble man behind the limelight & so forth. Nobody makes Muhammed Ali but himself, a boxer, a promoter all blended into one. It was such a touching moment to finally read of him holding the Olympic torch at the summer games in Atlanta, which was a milestone for the man himself. It was a captivating & intense book to read. The book also contains several significant black and white pictures of Muhammed Ali. Highly recommended.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2000
This was a very well reported book, and an excellent snapshot of a changing time, in sports, and in race relations in the US.
For better or worse, however, the real Ali comes through strongly in the book. While Remnick, and everyone who talks to the author extensively in the book, praises Ali as a great, sweet and brave man, he comes through to me the same as he always did: while undoubtedly a great boxer, he overstayed his welcome in the ring, and more often than not, his boorish behavior seems very off-putting.
I'm happy that Ali was around in his time, to move the countries attitudes, but he certainly seems a bit more of a lout than anyone was willing to admit, in the way he treated his friends, women, and opponents.
Nevertheless, the subject should not get in the way of the book itself
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 1999
This book was fascinating. I remember the grown-ups talking about these fights when I was a kid. I knew they were a big deal, but I didn't know why. Now I do. Mr. Remnick has illuminated the times and the political/racial atmosphere in which these fights took place. I found the short biographies of Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston especially enlightening. It's surprising to read how loathed Ali was at the time. And how lucky he was! If the first Liston fight hadn't been postponed because of Ali's hernia... when Liston had really trained and was ready... well, who knows? This has been the best sports book I've read in years, and I can't recommend it highly enough. What a wild ride!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2004
The Titans Reigned Supreme
Fantastic book - more than just the Ali Story -
This is one of the best-written and thought out books of the happenings amongst a small circle of the greatest heavy weights.
You get a rare insight into the lives and minds of Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay - and the awakening/becoming of Muhammad Ali
I went into this book wanting to feed my hunger for knowledge of Muhammad Ali and came out of with a craving for more Sonny Liston - I now want to know all I can about him.
Only a brief period in time is covered - but it's an in-depth look at that time and the people and the places that made up boxing and some of the world outside boxing.
This is a great book for anyone interested in these titans - for anyone interested in Patterson, Liston and Ali - for anyone interested in the history of legends.
One of the best books I've experienced - I truly felt like I was there at times - in that era - that energy of the people and the times
This is one of those books where you wish there was a part 2