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Customer Review

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.
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