Of Writing Men: David Remnick’s ‘King of the World’

David Remnick’s biography of Muhammed Ali uses his accomplishments to gauge the changing face of boxing and the cultural and political disposition of America.

King of the World
David Remnick
October 1999

Amongst the praise for David Remnick’s biography of boxer Muhammad Ali, 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 and regarded as a resort to easy virtue. There is undoubtedly a craft to presenting one’s life in writing: accurate articulation of events and characters in the subject’s life and understanding of the subject’s 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. David Remnick treats Muhammad Ali as the boxer he is, but a boxer who became a political and ideological figure through his sport. It is tempting to think of Muhammad 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 Muhammad Ali does not concern Remnick. Instead, the author deals with Muhammad Ali as a public figure.

The first quarter of King of the World compares the two men to hold the heavyweight championship before Muhammad 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 Muhammad Ali’s role within boxing. David 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 Muhammad 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. David 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 Muhammad Ali’s life, omitting many major events – the Vietnam draft refusal, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thriller in Manila. Instead, David 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 Muhammad Ali in an accurate social context, Remnick succeeds in showing us the reasons why Muhammad 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.

RATING 9 / 10