Last year, David Remnick received huge attention for The Bridge, his biography of Barack Obama. Eschewing the conventions of the form, the New Yorker editor focussed not on Obama’s private life but his public rise to senator and eventually president of the United States. It is a trick he also employed in 1998’s King of the World, a biography of another African-American icon, Muhammad Ali.
King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American HeroPublisher: Vintage Books
Length: 352 pages
Author: David Remnick
Format: Trade paperback
Publication date: 1999-10
Amongst the praise for King of the World came a perceptive comment from Toni Morrison. “By using the Clay-Liston battle as a pivot and placing Muhammad Ali in an accurate social context, Remnick constructs a narrative very much like Ali himself: astute, double-hearted, irresistible. He is so completely in charge of his craft that it becomes an art.”
Biographies are often shunned by criticism, regarded as a resort of easy virtue. There is undoubtedly craft to presenting one’s life in writing: accurate articulation of events and characters in the subjects’ life; understanding the subjects’ standing and importance in their profession. But it is rare for biographical writing to be considered ‘art’. So how does King of the World differ?
The answer lies in Morrison’s praise. Remnick treats Ali as a boxer, but a boxer who became a political and ideological figure through his sport. It is tempting to think of Ali as a political and ideological figure who happened to be a boxer. But he is a real person, a tangible slab of molecules, organs and hair. He eats, sleeps, uses the toilet, walks through doorways, talks on the telephone; he has a wife and children, he pays a mortgage and owns a car. This Ali does not concern Remnick. Instead, the author deals with Ali as a public figure.
The first quarter of King of the World compares the two men to hold the heavyweight championship before Ali. Floyd Patterson was, “the most doubt-addled titleholder in the history of the division”; Sonny Liston had served time for armed robbery and worked as an enforcer for the mafia. Both were black and, in their own way, products of boxing’s white power structure. Liston, the ‘bad nigger’, had the mafia in his corner; Patterson, the ‘good nigger’, had President Kennedy and the NAACP in his. In the ring, Patterson handed his title to Liston, hitting the canvas in two minutes.
The Patterson-Liston disparity is imperative to understanding Ali’s role within boxing. Remnick explains how metaphors of racial struggle came easily. Jack Johnson, and Joe Louis after him, defended his heavyweight title against a string of white boxers. With Patterson-Liston, something had changed.
Cassius Clay – as Ali was then known – would avoid Patterson’s white promoters and Liston’s mafia rackets. His conversion to the Nation of Islam subverted any expectations of him as a boxer, as a black man, and as a black boxer. All of his most prominent opponents – Liston, Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman – were black.
Morrison’s ‘pivot’ is the first title fight between Clay and the champion Liston. Clay was an unknown quantity, a brash, rude young man, an oddity. The fight drew a small crowd due to overwhelming odds in the champion’s favour and the press’s distaste for Clay. Remnick tells us the promoters “could not repeat the dumb show of Patteron-Liston, the good negro versus the bad negro. This was a matchup between a Muslim punk and a terrifying thug.” The subsequent immensely detailed account of the fight lasts fifteen pages and is perhaps the book’s most entertaining passage. As Remnick describes Clay ducking and weaving Liston’s fists and the perceptions of the ringside journalists, we feel the sport, the protagonist and the world changing.
King of the World does not offer a stiff chronological account of Ali’s life, omitting many major events – the Vietnam draft refusal, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thriller in Manila. Instead, Remnick uses Ali and his accomplishments to gauge the changing face of boxing, criminal activities related to the sport, the progression of race relations in the United States, and ultimately the disposition of the country itself.
By using the Clay-Liston fight as a pivot and placing Ali in an accurate social context, Remnick succeeds in showing us the reasons why Ali is an American hero. He does not tell us everything about his subject. Instead, he tells us why the public life of his subject – what we already know – matters.