King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

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Prologue: In Michigan xi
Part 1
1 Underground Man 3
2 Two Minutes, Six Seconds 27
3 Mr. Fury and Mr. Gray 43
4 Stripped 69
Part 2
5 The Bicycle Thief 81
6 Twentieth-Century Exuberance 99
7 Secrets 125
8 Hype 145
Part 3
9 The Cross and the Crescent 163
10 Bear Hunting 173
11 "Eat Your Words!" 183
12 The Changeling 205
Part 4
13 "Save Me, Joe Louis . . ." 221
14 Gunfire 233
15 The Anchor Punch 253
16 What's in a Name? 267
Epilogue: Old Men by the Fire 285
Notes on ...
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King of the World: Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

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Overview

Prologue: In Michigan xi
Part 1
1 Underground Man 3
2 Two Minutes, Six Seconds 27
3 Mr. Fury and Mr. Gray 43
4 Stripped 69
Part 2
5 The Bicycle Thief 81
6 Twentieth-Century Exuberance 99
7 Secrets 125
8 Hype 145
Part 3
9 The Cross and the Crescent 163
10 Bear Hunting 173
11 "Eat Your Words!" 183
12 The Changeling 205
Part 4
13 "Save Me, Joe Louis . . ." 221
14 Gunfire 233
15 The Anchor Punch 253
16 What's in a Name? 267
Epilogue: Old Men by the Fire 285
Notes on Sources and Acknowledgments 307
Index 311
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
New Yorker editor David Remnick's biography of Muhammad Ali shows the man for what he was: larger than life. Paying great attention to Ali's early career, Remnick shows Ali as an athlete who personified a larger cultural movement and represented a sea change in American culture. Ali showed us a new path, and Remnick's book is a chronicle of how Ali became the man we remember him as. A fascinating blend of sociology, fight reportage, history, and wit, King of the World is essential for anyone who hopes to understand Ali, and the early 1960s, more completely.
Boston Globe
A worthy tribute to Ali.
Time Magazine
A most excellent book. Remnick's account of the 1964 Liston fight is so vivid one can imagine Ali saying, "How'd you get inside my head, boy?"
L.S. Klepp
. . .Intelligent, informed, enlightened. . . —Entertainment Weekly
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
It has been an amazing story, and Mr. Remnick captures the best of it in King of the World.
The New York Times
New York Times
Penetrating. . .an amazine story, and Mr. Remnick captures the best of it.
Wall Street Journal
Succeeds more than any previous book in bringing Ali into focus.
Budd Schulberg
Here's a fine book to remind us again that Ali was born with a gift for living (and believing) in a world without end.
-- The New York Times Book Review
Hal Hinson

In the preface to his collection The Devil Problem and Other True Stories, David Remnick writes: "Reporters are interested above all ... in stories." If so, then Remnick has lived a charmed life. In terms of sheer drama and significance, no story in our collective lifetime compares to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Remnick covered for the Washington Post and used as the basis of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lenin's Tomb. With his latest book, King of the World, the author's subject is not only the most heroic sports figure of the 20th century, but also, as Remnick puts it, "one of the most compelling and electric American figures of the age."

The result is a book that's strong in its grasp of social forces but also sensitive in attention to human detail. What drew Remnick -- who was recently named editor of the New YorkerKing of the World is a book about a boxer, not a book about boxing. Remnick is most interested in what happens outside the ring. When Remnick begins his story, Muhammad Ali is still Cassius Clay, and must share the stage with two of his most fearsome opponents, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. Patterson, Remnick writes, was the Good Negro, "an approachable and strangely fearful man, a deferential champion of civil rights, integration, and Christian decency," while Liston, "a veteran of the penitentiary system before he came to the ring," reluctantly took on the role of the Bad Negro. Each represented a stereotype Ali would ultimately transcend. "I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man," Ali tells the author. "I had to show that to the world."

Remnick's deft staging and insight make familiar events seem fresh in the retelling. Less well-traveled territory -- Ali's relationship with the Nation of Islam, his friendship with (and ultimate repudiation of) Malcolm X and the transition from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali -- is also handled well. Remnick only follows Ali's story through the champion's 1967 refusal to enter the armed forces. ("Man," he famously said, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong.") He saves his most impassioned writing for the fight Ali wages against the American military. As a result of his stand, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. However, the real cost for his refusal was something like $10 million in purses and endorsements. What was worse, Remnick writes, it also cost him his title. "His title, which he had coveted from the time he was twelve."

Visiting the 54-year-old Ali on his Michigan farm, Remnick finds that the three-time heavyweight champion of the world thinks about death "all the time now." Suffering severely from Parkinson's, Ali has been robbed of his most powerful weapon -- his voice. And yet he has not been silenced. Of the few remaining icons of the '60s, Remnick observes, Ali is by far the most adored. "He hit people for a living, and, yet, by middle age he would be a symbol not merely of courage, but of love, of decency, even a kind of wisdom." With King of the World, David Remnick has written a great book about Muhammad Ali -- a book that is worthy of its subject. -- Salon

KLIATT
Muhammad Ali is an icon. This magnificent biography concentrates on the Champ's early career. In 1964 Cassius Clay, as he was known then, danced into a Miami ring with Sonny Liston to contest the world heavyweight boxing championship. Liston, a bruising puncher who had twice destroyed Floyd Patterson in title bouts, was expected to do the same to his new challenger. Clay, young, brash, obnoxious even, had fought his way up from humble roots in Louisville, KY to take on the heavily favored Liston. Reporters covering the match gave Clay no chance to win, and in fact were concerned about the possibility of him being seriously hurt. The fight is on ESPN Classic every once in a while, but seeing it does not compare to the excitement generated by the author's written account. Clay proved that he was the greatest not only in Miami in 1964, but again in Maine the next year, and again and again in Kinshasa, Manila, and Atlanta, where he lit the torch to open the 1996 Olympic Games. Back to the sixties, though, which is the focus of this remarkable book. It was during this time that Clay not only cemented his claim as the world's best pugilist, but also confirmed his allegiance to the Nation of Islam by changing his name and refusing to go to Vietnam. Ali paid a steep price for his convictions, and in the process transformed America's racial politics. Time declared King of the World the best nonfiction of the year (1998). It is another classic by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The book is rich in biographical insight and historical detail. Remnick's vivid descriptions of Ali's key bouts are unparalleled. High recommended for students of Ali, boxing fans, and social historians. KLIATT Codes:SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Random House/Vintage, 326p, 21cm, illus, notes, index, 98-24539, $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Randy M. Brough; Lib. Dir., Franklin P.L., Franklin, NH, May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
Library Journal
Recently appointed editor of The New Yorker, Remnick, the author of Resurrection (LJ 12/97) and Lenin's Tomb (LJ 6/15/93), turns from Russia's upheavals to a different revolution: the change in black political consciousness in the early 1960s and the metamorphosis of Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali. Remnick contrasts the era's three major heavyweight champions as competing models of black identity: the reticent former knee-breaking goon, Sonny Liston, who terrified opponents while being entirely the pawn of white mobsters; the introspective, Catholic integrationist Floyd Patterson, who reluctantly fought the overwhelming Liston because President Kennedy asked him to; and the mouthy, beautiful seven-to-one underdog who "shook up the world" by mastering Liston, severing the mob's claim on the heavyweight title, and trading in his "slave name" for the Muslims. Not every athlete could so fully engage a mind like Remnick's; his unlikely achievement is to bring freshness and a wider focus to the legend-tangled story while fully exploring supporting characters from Frankie Carbo to Malcolm X. Remnick's is the smartest Ali biography since Wilfrid Sheed's elegant ode Muhammad Ali (LJ 11/1/75) but with a broader cultural range. Highly recommended.--Nathan Ward, "Library Journal"
L.S. Klepp
. . .Intelligent, informed, enlightened. . .
-- Entertainment Weekly
The Wall Street Journal
Succeeds more than any previous book in bringing Ali into focus.
The Boston Globe
A worthy tribute to Ali.
Mark McClusky
Über Ali

Before there was Muhammad Ali, arguably the most famous athlete ever to walk this earth, there was Cassius Clay, a fast-talking kid from Louisville, Kentucky. Clay went to Rome in 1960 and won an Olympic gold medal in the light-heavyweight division, then returned to a country where he couldn't eat where he wanted or stay at a hotel with whites.

There was nothing new about this institutionalized racism, nothing particularly surprising about Clay's frustration with it. But the story of Clay's transformation into Muhammad Ali is the story of a society grappling with racial issues, and of how those issues played out in the boxing ring. In David Remnick's new book, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, we see how a kid from Kentucky became the most highly visible symbol of a new society, one where achievement and flair would allow him to become a hero to blacks and whites alike.

The career of Muhammad Ali stretched through four decades and countless fights. Remnick focuses on the formative period of Ali's professional career, especially his two fights against Sonny Liston and his defeat of Floyd Patterson. In fact, Liston and Patterson are two of the more compelling figures in this beautifully written book, and the narrative begins with the first title fight between the champion, Patterson, and the challenger, Liston.

The promoters of the Patterson-Liston fight (mostly Mafia related, we learn in an informative tangent) decided to portray the fight as a battle between the cultured Negro and the frightening black man. Patterson was an introspective fighter, well-spoken, insecure in ways, deferential to white writers. Liston, on the other hand, was a sullen ex-convict, illiterate and uncomfortable with reporters. The press and public was solidly behind Patterson, but Liston destroyed him in their first fight, and did so again in a rematch.

Liston was thought unbeatable. Think of Mike Tyson at the height of his powers. In fact, the brooding Tyson has often said that Liston is a fighter he identifies strongly with. There weren't many credible challengers for the title, but into that void stepped Cassius Clay, who beat Liston twice to establish himself as the new standard bearer in the heavyweight division.

Clay was already starting to follow the teachings of Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad and his then-deputy, Malcolm X. He was a handsome, charismatic man. With this persona, he presented a new model for the black athlete. He wasn't the introspective, accommodating Patterson. Nor was he the frighteningly terse Liston. He was a different sort of man, confident, astonishingly talented, and committed to a religion that many found repulsive.

Ali showed us a new path, and Remnick's book is a chronicle of how Ali became the man we remember him as. A fascinating blend of sociology, fight reportage, history, and wit, King of the World is essential for anyone who hopes to understand Ali, and the early 1960s, more completely.
— Mark McClusky, is the chief of reporters at Sports Illustrated for Kids.

Kirkus Reviews
A literate, intelligent evocation of the great heavyweight champion. Remnick (Resurrection), the Pulitzer Prize winner who is editor of The New Yorker, opens—wisely—with the September 1962 fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. His profiles of both men are remarkable studies of the sociological backdrop for Ali's entrance upon the scene. Patterson was cast as the good, humble Negro aligned with God; Liston, an ex-con who worked as an enforcer for the mob, as the big, bad, scary black. The brash, poetry-spouting Cassius Clay (as he was still known) fit neither stereotype. Despite his 1960 Olympic gold medal, his obvious speed, and his boxing skills, sportswriters hated the impudent young fighter. He was "considered little more than a light-hitting loudmouth." Clay was no one's pick to steal the title from the overpowering Liston. Remick does a fantastic job of setting the stage for that February 1964 fight, noting that even Clay's people had their doubts: One insider merely hoped "that Clay wouldn't get hurt." The jabbering, taunting Clay pummeled the plodding, dispirited Liston, who simply quit after the sixth round. It was shortly after the fight that Ali's association with the Nation of Islam was revealed. His friendship with Malcolm X and his espousal of the Black Muslim creed, along with his promotional rantings of "I am the greatest!," did not endear him to the public. But he kept winning, beating Liston yet again in 1965 in the most controversial hit in heavyweight history. Remnick's reenactment of that one-punch, "phantom punch" knockout in the first round is brilliant. Remnick tails off with Ali's 1967 refusal of the military draft and hissubsequent suspension, not going into quite enough depth to explain Ali's virtual canonization by the American press and public. But no matter: This is a great look at a warrior who came to symbolize love.
From the Publisher
"By now we all have our notions about what Ali meant — to his time and to the history of his sport. Of course David Remnick sheds light on these subjects, but where King of the World really shines is in the ring itself. With telling detail, Remnick captures the drama, danger, beauty, and ugliness of a generation's worth of big heavyweight fights." — Bob Costa
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375500657
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/20/1998
  • Pages: 326
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

David Remnick

David Remnick was a reporter for The Washington Post
for ten years, including four in Moscow. He joined The
New Yorker as a writer in 1992 and has been the magazine’s editor since 1998. Remnick served as an Olympic
Correspondent and Commentator for NBC
during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Underground Man

SEPTEMBER 25, 1962

On the morning of the fight, the heavyweight champion of the world packed a loser's suitcase. Floyd Patterson, for all his hand speed, for all the hours he put in at the gym, was the most doubt-addled titleholder in the history of the division. There were always losers, professional opponents, set-'em-ups, unknowns who suffered as he did, men who took no pleasure in winning except as the periodic escape from loss and humiliation. But he was champion, the youngest man ever to win the title.

    In the last weeks of training, Patterson lay on his bed at night, out in a cabin in the Illinois countryside, half asleep, listening to his recording of "Music for Lovers Only," and, if he was lucky, he saw himself winning, he saw himself leaping out of a crouch and striking Sonny Liston with his famous "kangaroo punch," a flying left hook delivered with so much vaulting thrust and ambition that there was always a chance that Patterson would go sailing past his target and through the ropes and into the flannel laps of press row. If the punch landed, as it had against so many, Patterson was golden. He might wait a while to take such risks, at least a few rounds until Liston started to feel the fatigue, but he would leap soon enough. Then he'd follow up, relentless, dropping the bigger man with a right uppercut, a cross, another hook. Patterson could not count on the power of a single punch, not against Liston, whose countenance suggested the strength of iron. He would rely on his gift, his speed.

    Patterson knew he had to beware: Liston's left jab was as powerful as another man's cross; in one fight, Liston had beaten a plodding contender named Wayne Bethea so badly with his jab that at the end of the bout Bethea's cornermen dragged their fighter to the dressing room and removed seven teeth from his mouthpiece. Blood was dripping from his ear. The fight had lasted fifty-eight seconds. So Patterson would have to keep his head. He would box, he would duck inside Liston's jab and beat the body.

    "I really thought I could beat Liston," Patterson told me nearly forty years later. "I think about it even now and I figure I'll find a way to win. That's funny, isn't it?"

    But the odds were against Patterson. Cus D'Amato, his mentor since he began boxing at fourteen, had spent years avoiding this fight, preferring instead to set Patterson up with softer opponents. D'Amato, who looked like a cross between the emperor Hadrian and Jimmy Cagney, used his authority and standing among the columnists to deliver righteous pronouncements about Liston's connections to the Mafia, and, like someone from the department of social welfare, he spoke of the need for rehabilitation, for Sonny to prove himself civilized and stay that way if he wanted a chance at the title. But Patterson knew perfectly well that D'Amato thought he had little chance against Liston. And in this, D'Amato was not alone. Some of Patterson's predecessors as champion, Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis among them, arrived in Chicago for the fight, and no sooner had they stepped off the plane than they began telling reporters that the challenger was too strong, too mean, to lose to Patterson.

    Almost everyone, of course, was backing Floyd, rooting for him, but this support was purely sentimental: the writers liked Patterson because he was always so cooperative, he was so open and polite; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was behind Patterson because he was a civil rights man, an integrationist, a reform-minded gentleman, while Liston, the excon, projected what one newspaper after another called "a poor example for the youth of America." Jackie Robinson's prediction that Patterson would "demolish" Liston had more to do with political hopes than boxing smarts.

    Patterson was determined, as always, to be fair, to accommodate, to do the right thing. Liston had been ranked the top contender for a long time. He had been to jail for armed robbery, true enough, but he had served his time, he deserved a chance. Patterson was doing his bit for the cause of social mobility. "Liston paid for his crimes," he said. "Should he be able to win the championship, these qualities will rise to the surface. I think you'd see a completely new and changed Liston."

    At least for the time being, Liston did not wish to betray any appreciation. "I'd like to run him over with a truck," he said.

    And so, with losing on his mind, Floyd made arrangements. He carefully stuffed his bag and an attache case with clothes, food, and a disguise--a custom-made beard and mustache. If he won, of course, he'd meet the press and head back to the hotel for a victory party. If not, he would leave Comiskey Park in his false whiskers and drive through the night to his training camp in upstate New York.

    That was always the way it was with Floyd. Fear, especially the fear of losing, ate at him. He was entitled to call himself the toughest man on the planet, yet he didn't much believe it. He was champion in the sense that Chester A. Arthur had been president. "I'm not a great champion," he would say, "I'm just a champion." There were those who wondered if Floyd was beyond sensitive, if he was a neurotic in shorts. Some of the reporters from England took to calling him Freud Patterson.

    He had ample reason to doubt himself. Until now, Patterson had been a lucky man, winning the title in November 1956 against Archie Moore. Moore was the craftiest of fighters, but like Patterson, he was small for a heavyweight, and, by the time of his fight with Floyd, a geriatric case in his early forties. Once Patterson won the title, he never projected the arrogance of a heavyweight champion. He never had the proper disdain. His eyes were sad and vulnerable, the dreamy eyes of a jilted teenager, and his physique was sinewy, the body of a road laborer, an utterly plausible body, but one that did not convey invincibility.

    At best, Patterson was a fine light heavyweight, bulked up for the marquee division. At fight time, Liston would outweigh Patterson 214 to 189. In boxing, if both men are equally skilled, more or less, the rules of physics usually obtain, and, as in the straight-on collision of two vehicles, the greater power goes to the greater force, to the bigger man, to the truck. Patterson's natural inclination was to get even smaller. "If we put him on a diet," his trainer, Dan Florio, said, "we'd soon have a middleweight on our hands."

    Patterson had never defended his title against a fighter even remotely as powerful as Liston. D'Amato set him up with the likes of Pete Rademacher, an Olympian fighting for the first time as a professional, and Brian London, one of those knobby Englishmen who bleed rivers on a pale chest. Perhaps the most notable of Patterson's opponents before Liston was one Roy Harris of Cut and Shoot, Texas. As the papers were happy to point out (happy, because the fight itself didn't promise much except cornpone exotica), Harris grew up wrestling alligators in a swamp around his house known as the Big Thicket. He was also kin to an Uncle Cleve and cousins Hominy, Coon, and Armadillo. In short, Harris was a PR setup, and still it took Floyd thirteen rounds to end it. Liston destroyed Harris in one.

    So, as much as he played out the winning scenario in his head, as much as he trained, Patterson was fully prepared to lose. Mentally or physically, he had no great advantage he could call his own. He had lost to lesser men than Liston, certainly--first to Joey Maxim in 1954, and then, as champion, to Ingemar Johansson in 1959. He reacted not with fury, as most heavyweights did, but with depression, prolonged withdrawal. After the Maxim defeat--a controversial decision--Floyd locked himself in his apartment and stayed there for several days. Against Johansson, the humiliation was far deeper because the stage was so much more visible. Defending his title at Yankee Stadium, he had been knocked to the floor, over and over, as in a particularly merciless alley fight. Patterson was a speed fighter, but against Johansson he never made his move. He froze, and Johansson, a burly Swede of modest talent, unloosed what his camp called, so annoyingly, his "toonder and lightning." After the first knockdown, Floyd got off the canvas and began walking dreamily toward his corner. Leaving the neutral corner, Johansson came in from Patterson's blind side and struck him down again; the assault looked less like boxing than an angry drunk splitting open another man's skull with a beer bottle. By around the fourth knockdown, as Patterson crawled around the canvas, staring through the ropes, his eyes locked on John Wayne, who was sitting at ringside, and, as he stared at the actor, Floyd felt embarrassed. Embarrassment was Patterson's signature emotion, and never more so than now. The fight was not even over before he started to wonder if everything he had fought for--his title, his belonging to a world greater than the one he grew up in--if all that was now at risk. Had he ever deserved any recognition, any belonging in the first place? What would John Wayne think of him? The referee, Ruby Goldstein, stopped the fight after Patterson had gone down for the seventh time.

    Floyd wanted to hide, but there was no hole deep enough. He had no disguise, so he borrowed a cornerman's hat and tugged at the brim as if to disappear inside it. He let his friends and family hug him, console him, but he hated their pity. He could not wait to be alone. And when they all went away, the family and the friends and the reporters, Floyd went home to New York. Day after day, he sat in his living room with the curtains drawn. "I thought my life was over," Patterson told me. He was one step away from where he started, one step from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the slum of his childhood. It was as if he expected the repo man to trot up his walk at any minute and start stacking the television and the oven and the couch outside in the front yard, and all the neighbors, his white neighbors, would see that he was nobody now.

    Floyd could not sleep, or, at least, not for long. Later that night, as he recounts in his autobiography, he climbed out of bed and headed down to the den. After a while, just before dawn, Sandra found him there.

    "Floyd," she said, "Floyd, what good will it do sitting down here in the dark thinking?"

    "Will it do more good lying up there in the dark?"

    When he woke, he looked up from the couch to see his three-year-old daughter, Jeannie, staring at him. His face was still covered with welts, and so he held Jeannie close, trying not to scare her. Later, Sandra persuaded him to come upstairs and get some real sleep. But after a while, she looked down at her husband and was terrified.

    "What's wrong with your ear?" she said.

    Patterson's pillow was covered with blood. Johansson's punches had ruptured his eardrum.

    His depression deepened. He sat alone for days, not reading, not talking, pushing everyone away. In three weeks, he left the house twice. He was, he said later, mourning his own death as champion. "Daddy's sick," Jeannie kept saying. "Daddy's sick." Patterson's depression lasted nearly a year.

    Fighters, Floyd was convinced, are always afraid, all of them, especially fighters at the top level. "We are not afraid of getting hurt but we are afraid of losing. Losing in the ring is like losing nowhere else," he said once. "A prizefighter who gets knocked out or is badly outclassed suffers in a way he will never forget. He is beaten under the bright lights in front of thousands of witnesses who curse him and spit at him, and he knows that he is being watched, too, by many thousands more on television and in the movies, and he knows that the tax agents will soon visit him--they always try to get their share before he winds up flat broke--and the fighter cannot shift the blame for his defeat onto his trainers or managers or anybody else, although if he won you can be sure that the trainers and managers would be taking bows. The losing fighter loses more than just his pride and the fight; he loses part of his future, he is one step closer to the slum he came from."

THERE HAD NEVER BEEN A HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION AS SENSITIVE, and as honest about his fears, as Floyd Patterson. He was the first professional athlete to receive what would become the modern treatment, a form of Freudian sportswriting that went beyond the ring and into the psyche. Victory Over Myself, Patterson's autobiography, as dictated to Milton Gross, a columnist at the New York Post, as well as his confessions to Gay Talese in The New York Times and later in Esquire magazine, had about them at least an echo of Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

    Patterson was surely not the first fighter to know fear, but he was the first to talk about it so freely in public. He was brought up that way in the gym. Cus D'Amato trained Patterson not only in the jab and the peekaboo defense, but also in introspection. D'Amato was the only modern psychoanalyst who carried a spit bucket in his hand and a Q-Tip in his teeth. In his lectures to his fighters, D'Amato taught that all things being relatively equal, the fighter who understands his own fears, manipulates them, uses them to his advantage, would always win; he taught young men like Patterson and Jose Torres, the brilliant light heavyweight from Puerto Rico, to understand their fights as psychodramas, as contests of will more than of gristle.

    Patterson grew up in a series of cold-water flats in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, a crumbling landscape of galling poverty. His father worked as a longshoreman, on construction gangs, as a laborer at the Fulton Fish Market. At night, Floyd's father came home so tired that he often forgot to eat and fell asleep in his clothes. Floyd would quietly take off his father's shoes and polish them, and wash his father's swollen feet. When Floyd's mother was not working at home, she was making a few dollars as a maid and working at a bottling plant. There were eleven children to feed. Floyd shared a bed with two of his brothers, Frank and Billy. Very early on, Floyd came to despise himself. He hated that he could do so little to help his father and mother. He felt stupid, powerless. "All I wanted to do was help my parents," Patterson told me, "and all I did was ending up in failure and making matters worse." He used to point at a photograph of himself at two years old and tell his mother, over and over again, "I don't like that boy!" When he was nine, he took down the picture and scratched a series of X's over his face. He had nightmares. More than once, neighbors found him out on the street, in the middle of the night, sleepwalking. He was a child who wanted to hide all the time, who sought the dark. Floyd prowled the alleyways, the dark corners, not because he was looking for trouble, but because he wanted to lose himself. He went to the movies in the morning and stayed through the last show. He rode the A train, back and forth, east to Lefferts Boulevard in the far reaches of Queens, back through Brooklyn, across the East River and up Manhattan to Washington Heights, and back again. From the time Floyd was nine, he would often stop his journeying at the High Street station in Brooklyn. He discovered there the ultimate hiding place. He walked through the tunnel to a semi-hidden tool shed the subway workmen used. He climbed up the metal ladder and locked himself into the darkness. This was his hideaway from the world. "I'd spread papers on the floor and I'd go to sleep and find peace."

    During the day, he began to steal, little things, a quart of milk, a piece of fruit, something he could bring home to his mother. By the time he was a teenager, Floyd was in court all the time--for truancy, for stealing, for running away. He went to court, he guessed, thirty or forty times.

    Finally, when Floyd was ten, a judge who had seen enough of him sent him to the Wiltwyck School for Boys, a farm for troubled youngsters upstate in Esopus, New York. It was September 1945 when Floyd went off to Wiltwyck. He thought he was being sent to jail, and he was furious with his mother, who had greeted the news with relief. It turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to him. Wiltwyck was 350 acres of farmland, an old estate that had been owned by the Whitney family. There were no fences or bars. There were chickens and cows, a decent gym, a creek to swim and fish in. There were teachers on the staff, as well as psychiatric social workers and therapists. The children were never beaten or locked in their rooms. Slowly, Floyd began to learn to read, to speak with a little more ease, to get over his permanent sense of shame. When he became champion, Patterson dedicated his autobiography to the school, "which started me in the right direction." Wiltwyck was precisely the kind of break that Sonny Liston would never have.

THE TWO YEARS AT WILTWYCK TURNED FLOYD AROUND. HE WAS never a good student, but at least now he could function in the world. Back in New York, Floyd entered P.S. 614, one of the city's "600" schools for troubled kids, and later he went for a year to the Alexander Hamilton Vocational High School. By the time Patterson got back to the city, two of his brothers were working out at the Gramercy Gym on East Fourteenth Street. Cus D'Amato owned the gym and slept in the back room. His dog was his only companion. D'Amato was a boxing ascetic. He made his living from boxing, but he despised money, gave it away. Money, he said, "was for throwing off the back of trains." When Patterson won the title, D'Amato took most of his share of the take, more than thirty thousand dollars, and used it to order up a bejeweled championship belt as a gift for his fighter. "Cus was crazy about everything in life except boxing," Jose Torres said. D'Amato was a well-informed paranoid. Fear ruled him. He was especially fearful of the Mafia, which ran boxing in his time--and he slept with a gun under his bed. He would never ride the subways, for fear of being pushed onto the tracks. He feared snipers. He feared unfamiliar food and drink. He told people that he never married for fear of being duped by "enemies."

    "I must keep my enemies confused," he once said. "When they are confused, then I can do a job for my fighters."

    As a kid, growing up in the Bronx, D'Amato starved himself for days, the better to withstand the pain when someone tried to take food from him. He was probably the youngest fatalist in the borough. He used to watch funeral processions outside his building and say, "The sooner death the better." D'Amato was a street kid and a street fighter. One day another kid slammed him in the head with a stick, and he lost the vision in his left eye. D'Amato, however, believed in the regeneration of optic tissue, and throughout his life he made an effort to heal himself, closing his good eye so as to "force" the left eye to see once more. When he became a trainer, D'Amato told his fighters that security, financial and otherwise, would be the death of them. Security dulled the senses, and pleasure--pleasure was worse. "The more pleasures you get out of living," D'Amato said, "the more fear you have of dying."

    Compared to most fight trainers and managers, who ritually described what the fighter ate for breakfast, how many miles he ran, and other such pabulum, D'Amato, with his sweat-scented philosophies and his strange habits, made for great copy, and writers came to his Gramercy Gym counting on a good story. D'Amato read, of all things, military history and Nietzsche, and out of that came a philosophy of pain and endurance. Norman Mailer began coming to the gym not long after his success with The Naked and the Dead. Young newspaper reporters--Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield--came even when they had no story in mind. D'Amato, for them, was the moralist in Babylon, the one fight manager of importance who talked up against the gangsters who ran nearly every fighter and arena in the country. They wrote about him, sometimes idealized him, as a figure of authenticity, the decent cornerman in the film noir world of fifties boxing. D'Amato, Mailer once wrote, "had the enthusiastic manner of a saint who is all works and no contemplation.... He reminded me of a certain sort of very tough Italian kid one used to find in Brooklyn. They were sweet kids, and rarely mean, and they were fearless, at least by the measure of their actions they were fearless. They would fight anybody."

    Patterson was fourteen when he walked up the two flights of wooden stairs to the Gramercy Gym. D'Amato always liked to see how kids came up the stairs for the first time. He watched their expressions, and then he'd wait and see how they came in the next day--if they came at all. Cus did not wait long to unleash his philosophy. He wanted Floyd, and the others, to begin digging into their own heads almost as soon as they hit their first heavy bag. For other managers, self-doubt was unthinkable; for D'Amato, a fighter had to understand himself or he would lose. A fighter isn't merely knocked out, he would say, he wants to be knocked out, his will fails him. "Fear is natural, it is normal," he said. "Fear is your friend. When a deer walks through the forest, it has fear. This is nature's way of keeping the deer alert because there may be a tiger in the trees. Without fear, we would not survive."

    Patterson proved to be a quick fighter, with a good left hook. He could sneak inside his opponent's jab and, with a combination, take him out. As a middleweight, he won a gold medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Red Smith, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, was impressed. Patterson, he wrote, "has faster paws than a subway pickpocket and they cause more suffering." That same year, Floyd went pro, and fighting in New York he got a lot of attention beating, in succession, Eddie Godbold, Sammy Walker, Lester Johnson, and Lalu Sabotin. For all his fears, Patterson had learned enough discipline and ring sense to take out all the top club fighters of his day, all the hard young men who fought at Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and St. Nick's on the West Side. Floyd's older brother Frank told Lester Bromberg, the fight writer at the New York World Telegram & Sun, "I'd like to say that I always knew it was in Floyd, but I have to be honest about it. I can't get used to my kid brother being a name fighter. I remember him as the boy who would cry if you hit him too hard when we boxed in the gym and as the green kid who would blow up if I pressed him."

    Floyd showed an unusual concern for his opponents. When he was training for a bout to be shown on television's Wednesday Night Fights against a Chicagoan named Chester Mieszala, D'Amato suggested that in the week before the bout Patterson work out at the same Chicago gym where Mieszala trained. Patterson refused. He said he didn't want to take "unfair advantage." In the fight itself, Patterson knocked out Mieszala's mouthpiece, and Mieszala, in a daze, went looking for it. Instead of stepping in and belting Mieszala, Floyd bent over and helped him. Eventually, Patterson went back to work, finishing Mieszala with a TKO in the fifth round. Even in a title fight, Floyd was capable of kindness. Against Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson, he kept trying to get referee Ruby Goldstein to step in and save the challenger from unnecessary punishment. Goldstein, touched to the core, complied.

    Patterson's emotional makeup contained not one ounce of schadenfreude. Even on the sweetest night of Patterson's career, the night at the Polo Grounds in March 1961 when he came back to avenge his humiliating seven-knockdown loss to Johansson, he derived no great enjoyment from his opponent's pain. Going into the fight, Patterson felt rage for the first time. He hated the way Johansson had bragged after taking his title, and he wanted back what had been taken away. In the fifth round, Floyd clubbed Johansson with two terrifying hooks, dropping him to one knee for a nine-count. When Johansson got up, Patterson was right there with one of his great leaping punches, and the champion went down like a dropped board. Johansson lay on the canvas, blood trickling out of his mouth and his left foot vibrating, like a man in a grand mal seizure. For a moment, Patterson betrayed a smile as he faced the crowd, but when he turned to see Johansson, still out cold, his foot twitching, he was repulsed, terrified that he had killed a man. Patterson ripped himself out of the jubilant grasp of one of his cornermen, knelt on the canvas, and cradled Johansson in the crook of his arm. Patterson kissed Johansson on the cheek and promised him another chance, a third fight.

    Later, Patterson admitted he had come to the arena with his beard and mustache, just in case. "He lacks the killer instinct," D'Amato said. "He's too tame, too nice to his opponents. I've been trying all the psychology I can think of to anger his blood up, but he just doesn't have the zest for viciousness. I have a big job on my hands."

ON DECEMBER 4, 1961, PRESIDENT JOHN KENNEDY WATCHED A televised boxing doubleheader held in different cities: Patterson's fourth-round knockout of Tom McNeely in Toronto and Liston's first-round destruction in Philadelphia of the fighter he called Albert "Quick Fall" Westphal. Like any other sports fan in the country (and even the non-boxing fan took notice of heavyweight title fights), Kennedy had been saying that the real fight would be between Patterson and Liston. After the second Johansson fight, Kennedy had even invited the champion to the White House, partly to congratulate him on being the first man ever to regain the heavyweight title, but also to encourage him. It was a seemingly routine visit--sports stars had been visiting presidents for decades; both won some easy and harmless publicity--but the session made Patterson uneasy. The president asked the champion whom he would be fighting next. Cassius Clay, the brash Olympic champion, was tearing his way to the top of the division, but no one was demanding that fight yet. Clay was not yet twenty. Patterson knew what the president meant.

    "Liston," he said. "I'm gonna fight Liston."

    Instead of merely wishing Patterson well, Kennedy said, "Well, you've got to beat this guy."

    Liston, for his part, was convinced that the White House meeting was the reason Patterson had finally agreed to a match. "Frankly, I don't think Patterson would have fought me if he hadn't promised the president," he said. "I believe Floyd found himself in a position where he couldn't go back on his word. After all, you don't tell the President of the United States that you are going to do something and then fail to do it."

    Floyd admitted to his own confusion in the Oval Office. "I felt all alone in there, completely terrified," he said. "You've got to remember how young I was, what my background was, and now I was getting advice in the Oval Office. What was I supposed to do? Disagree? I had to take the challenge. I was always afraid of letting people down and now I was in a position where I had to worry about letting down the president."

    Patterson was now fighting for the Good, and Sonny, whether he liked it or not, was the Bad. Liston understood his role well. "A boxing match is like a cowboy movie," he said. "There's got to be good guys and there's got to be bad guys. That's what people pay for--to see the bad guys get beat. So I'm the bad guy. But I change things. I don't get beat."

    It was far from automatic that Liston would even be allowed to fight Patterson. Madison Square Garden, still the most prestigious site in America for boxing, was out of the question. The New York authorities were (rightly) convinced that Liston had never cut his ties to the Mafia and refused him a license. Where could they go? Dr. Charles Larson, president of the United States National Boxing Association, said he would do all he could to prevent the match. "In my opinion Patterson is a fine representative of his race, and I believe the heavyweight champion of the world should be the kind of man our children could look up to as they have always done, as hero-worshipers," he said. "If Liston should become champion before he had rehabilitated himself, it might well be a catastrophe." The same camp said that a Liston victory would be worse for boxing than the horrible night six months before when Emile Griffith killed Benny "Kid" Paret in the ring. It took Sir David Harrington Angus Douglas, the twelfth Marquess of Queensberry, a descendant of the rule maker of boxing, to lift the whiff of moralism from the match. "I would have rather thought it wasn't all that relevant whether or not Liston was a good character. If he's not in prison at the moment, he must currently be legally straight. If he's a good boxer, he must be entitled to a fight with Patterson."

    Patterson could endure or ignore the politics of boxing and its various commissions, but not the concerns of men like Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement was gathering momentum in the South and was setting off a profound backlash, especially in the Deep South, and the leaders of the movement worried that, in a moment, they would lose an upstanding champion, a worthy standard-bearer, in Patterson and get Sonny Liston, a convicted felon, instead. The civil rights movement had problems enough--the fight came in the midst of James Meredith's attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi and the battle between the Supreme Court and Governor Ross Barnett, who vowed that the state "will not drink from the cup of genocide." Martin Luther King's rebellion represented the most powerful social upheaval since the war. To tens of millions of Americans, integration was unthinkable and every breakthrough of the civil rights movement, every court case, every march and sit-in, seemed an offense against nature. Fair or not, the last thing the movement's leaders needed was to have the most visible black man in America be a graduate of the Missouri penal system, a thug who'd been jailed for armed robbery. Percy Sutton, head of the Manhattan chapter of the NAACP, said, "Hell, let's stop kidding. I'm for Patterson because he represents us better than Liston ever could." They saw Patterson as one of theirs, a black man who had fought his way up (literally, in his case); he was a race man, but one whom enlightened white men could accept, could talk to. When Patterson's wife was refused an appointment by a masseuse near their house on Long Island, he sued under the local antidiscrimination code. When Patterson later bought a house in northern Yonkers, near Scarsdale, his white neighbors made his life miserable; a dentist next door immediately threw up a six-foot fence. When Patterson built his own fence, the dentist, a Dr. Morelli, shouted to the workmen, "Touch on my property and you had better have a court order for it." Eventually, Patterson gave up the fight and moved out.

    "I am just part of the social history of our time and our country, and I can't lag behind it--or run too far ahead of it," he said later in his autobiography. "If you keep walking around with the bitterness in you, sooner or later it's got to turn into a pain that makes you want to strike out at the injustice. I would never want to do that. If I can't go some place legally, I don't want to go there at all. If I can't fight back legally, I don't want to do it viciously. At the same time, you can't overlook it and pretend it doesn't exist."

    Fame was no protection against humiliation. In the spring of 1957, after Patterson had become champion, he and two of his sparring partners were refused seating at one restaurant after another on a Saturday afternoon in Kansas City. They bought cheese and crackers instead and went back to their hotel. They heard that Jersey Joe Walcott was in town to referee a professional wrestling match and they called on him in his room. When they arrived they noticed that Walcott was also eating his lunch in his room; all he'd been able to come up with was a bag of cookies and a quart bottle of milk. Walcott offered Patterson and his friends some cookies.

    "We've just had a bite," Patterson said, "just the way you're having it."

    "Ain't it something?" Walcott said. "The former world's heavyweight champion and the present champ, but in this town it's all the same. The oldest champ and the youngest, but both have to eat in their rooms. This is a nice town. Not too bad if you walk with your eyes just looking ahead and don't listen to what folks are saying. That's why I stay in the room here. Less chance of being misunderstood."

    Liston and Patterson trained for several months--Liston in Philadelphia, Patterson at his camp in upstate New York. In the last weeks before the fight, they both set up camp in the Chicago area. The facilities they chose might have been predicted. Patterson's camp resembled a monastic retreat, a series of cabins in the town of Elgin called Marycrest Farm. Marycrest was a Catholic Worker settlement house, not much different from Wiltwyck. One building that had been converted into a press headquarters was decorated with religious mosaics and a set of crucifixes. The two doors to the room where the press agents worked were marked by Latin signs: Veritas over one, Caritas over the other. In ordinary times, Veritas and Caritas marked barns for cows. Patterson trained in a tent with a sign outside reading So we being many are one body in Christ. His press conferences took place in a refectory under a mural of saints. Patterson felt at home here. He had converted to the Roman Catholic Church and now he was being advertised as the fight game's St. Francis.

    The promoters offered the Liston entourage a camp next to the prison in Joliet. They figured that the barbed wire and watchtowers would be the perfect backdrop for feature stories focusing on Liston's past. Liston thought otherwise. Instead, he trained at an abandoned racetrack in East Aurora, with wire gates and a uniformed cop stationed outside. The infield of the track was a bleak expanse of withered grass. A vicious wind whipped off the disintegrating grandstands. Liston pounded the heavy bag and sparred in a makeshift gym that had once been the parimutuel shed. It was as if Johnny Appleseed were training in one place and the Angel of Death in the other, one of the writers remarked.

    The press shuttled between the two and drew out this contrast of Good versus Evil, of the Good Negro versus the Threatening Negro. This was 1962, and newspapermen were still dominant, above all white columnists from New York: Milton Gross of the Post, Jimmy Cannon of the Post (and then the World-Telegram), Red Smith of the Herald Tribune, Dick Young of the News, Arthur Daley of the Times. Liston trusted none of them. He could not read a road sign, much less a newspaper, but his wife, Geraldine, read the columns to him, and it was not long before he knew that he had few fans among the writers. Nor did Sonny have any great supporters among the white literati who had come from the various magazines: Budd Schulberg for Playboy, A. J. Liebling for The New Yorker, Ben Hecht for a Nyack paper, and Norman Mailer for Esquire.

    The literary undercard of the Patterson-Liston fight in Chicago featured the meeting of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, who was on assignment for Nugget, a men's magazine which would go out of business in 1965. (Liebling apparently did not care for the presence of visiting novelists. "The press gatherings before this fight sometimes resembled those highly intellectual pour-parlers on a Mediterranean island," he wrote. "Placed before typewriters, the accumulated novelists could have produced a copy of The Paris Review in forty-two minutes.") Mailer and Baldwin had been on friendly terms in the fifties, but by 1961, they were not getting along. Baldwin felt insulted by Mailer both personally and intellectually: personally because Mailer, in an essay critical of a range of contemporaries, had called him "too charming to be major"; intellectually because he thought that Mailer's essay on race, "The White Negro," was dangerous in the way it featured the black man as merely a collection of unbridled sexual and violent impulses. In a 1961 article for Esquire called "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," Baldwin said that Mailer was obsessed with power and was essentially an adolescent, a beatnik, arrogant and naive, and had committed the folly of advertising a perverse notion of black culture to titillate the bourgeois white hipsters.

    Baldwin arrived in Chicago unsure of his subject. Unlike Mailer, who prided himself on his knowledge of boxing and knew many trainers and fighters, Baldwin was ignorant of the sport. He would never acquire Mailer's ease hanging out at a gym, he could not rely on a ready facility with boxing history and the metaphors of sporting glory. Baldwin would rely instead on his empathy for Patterson and Liston, his understanding of them as poor black kids with an ambition. "I know nothing whatever about the Sweet Science or the Cruel Profession or the Poor Boy's Game," he wrote. "But I know a lot about pride, the poor boy's pride, since that's my story and will, in some way, probably, be my end."

    Baldwin, with Gay Talese of the Times as his guide, visited both camps and was bewildered by the fight-week scene: the reporters gossiping away the morning and then crashing their stories on deadline, the late dinners on expense account, the customarily farcical feud between the two fighters, the inane press conferences, the parties at the Playboy Mansion, the former champions--Louis, Marciano, Barney Ross, Johansson, Ezzard Charles--milling around, dispensing opinions for quotation as a form of stature maintenance. In the pressroom, the general feeling was that Patterson had become champion by default and, pity though it might be, had little chance against Liston. Look at how he had lost to a mediocrity like Johansson! Down seven times in a single round--a human yo-yo!

    Baldwin went to Elgin, where Patterson's press aide, Ted Carroll, greeted him with great deference and gave him a tour of the camp. Carroll seemed to understand that Baldwin was a beginner in boxing.

    "Mr. Baldwin, this is a training camp," he said. "And this countryside matches the personality of the champion. While his trade is violent, Mr. Baldwin, his personality is unruffled, bucolic. Is that a good word, Mr. Baldwin?"

    Baldwin nodded. Yes, it was.

    Carroll set up Baldwin to take a long walk with the champion and watch him train. Patterson allowed that he had not read any of Baldwin's books, but he had seen him once on television debating the race question.

    "I knew I'd seen you somewhere!" Patterson said.

    Baldwin clearly felt something for Patterson--he would even place a $750 bet on him. Patterson, for Baldwin, was an unlikely warrior, a complicated, vulnerable, troubled young man who seemed to yearn for privacy even as he uncorked yet another interview for another set of reporters. Baldwin watched Patterson jump rope, "which he must do according to some music in his head, very beautiful and gleaming and far away, like a boy saint helplessly dancing and seen through the steaming windows of a storefront church"; it was a scene that recalled Baldwin's boy saint Elisha, in his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.

    After the training session, one of the last before the fight, Baldwin watched Patterson meet with a few reporters. Patterson drank a cup of hot chocolate and wore a tight shy smile. He was asked, as he was every day, why he was fighting Liston.

    "Well, it was my decision to take the fight," Patterson said. "You gentlemen disagreed, but you were the ones who placed him in the number one position, so I felt it was only right. Liston's criminal record is behind him, not before him."

    "Do you feel you've been accepted as champion?"

    "No," he said. "Well, I have to be accepted as champion--but maybe not a good one."

    "Why do you say that the opportunity to become a great champion will never arise?"

    "Because you gentlemen will never let it arise."

    "I mainly remember Floyd's voice, going cheerfully on and on," Baldwin remembered later in his piece for Nugget, "and the way his face kept changing, and the way he laughed; I remember the glimpse of him then, a man more complex than he was yet equipped to know, a hero for many children who were still trapped where he had been, who might not have survived without the ring, and who yet oddly did not really seem to belong there."

    Before Baldwin left, he gave Patterson copies of Another Country and Nobody Knows My Name, inscribing them, "To Floyd Patterson... because we both know whence we come, and have some idea of where we're going."

    Baldwin also visited Liston's camp, and there he found the Liston almost no one else did. Some reporters, including Jack McKinney of the Philadelphia Daily News, Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger, and Bob Teague of The New York Times (one of the very few black reporters on the sports beat), had enjoyed a good rapport with Liston, even when he was still a contender, but the rest had not. The reporters asked questions that invariably referred to this arrest or that shortcoming, and Sonny would answer with a grunt or a yes or a no or a sustained glare.

    Even when Liston was trying to be funny with a reporter, he could be intimidating. A. J. Liebling once went up to visit him in training camp and was told he would get an interview at a local restaurant after the day's workout. Liston arrived at the restaurant and everyone around the banquette ordered cups of steaming tea. Suddenly, Liston's expression soured and he began screaming at his cornerman, Joe Pollino, about the two dollars he owed him. The two men argued and then Liston lunged toward Pollino.

    "You lie, you hound!" Liston shouted. "Gimme my two bucks!"

    As Liebling remembered it, "A vast fist shot out, and I heard a tremendous smack as Pollino went down, amid a shower of teeth." Liston then pulled out a pistol and started firing away at his cut man. Pollino slumped in the banquette. Then Liston turned the revolver on Liebling and fired. "I threw up my hands and, in doing so, spilled my tea." Liebling's self-description gives him more credit for calm than was genuinely due. He nearly died of heart failure on the spot. When he recovered, his overcoat now blotched with tea stains, Liebling heard Pollino explain that the teeth were actually white beans and Liston explain that the bullets were blanks.

    "You come see us again, hear?" Liston told Liebling. "You come back!"

    These public relations tactics, such as they were, got an ex post facto laugh from Liebling in print, yet they did not always charm. Many of the reporters approached Liston as they would a monster. The terms "gorilla" and "jungle cat" were common enough, but the texture of the racism became far more elaborate. Peter Wilson of The Daily Mirror wrote: "Sometimes he takes so long to answer a question, and has so much difficulty in finding the word he wants to use, that it's rather like a long-distance telephone call in a foreign language. But the man is fascinating. While his scarred face is immobile and his enormous painted-saucer eyes have the fixed glare of an octopus, his hands compel attention. The palms are soft and white, like the inside of a banana skin. His fingers are the unpeeled bananas."

    Many of the reporters marked Liston's recalcitrance for stupidity or worse. Baldwin did not. "He is far from stupid; he is not, in fact, stupid at all," he wrote. "And while there is a great deal of violence in him, I sense no cruelty at all. On the contrary, he reminded me of big, black men I have known who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren't hard. Anyone who cared to could turn them into taffy. Anyway, I liked him, liked him very much. He sat opposite me at the table, sideways, head down, waiting for the blow: for Liston knows, as only the inarticulately suffering can, just how inarticulate he is. But let me clarify that: I say suffering because it seems to me that he has suffered a great deal. It is in his face, in the silence of that face, and in the curiously distant light in the eyes--a light which rarely signals because there have been so few answering signals. And when I say inarticulate, I really do not mean to suggest that he does not know how to talk. He is inarticulate in the way we all are when more has happened to us than we know how to express; and inarticulate in a particularly Negro way--he has a long tale to tell which no one wants to hear."

    Liston, as it turned out, didn't mind talking to Baldwin. The son of a Harlem preacher, Baldwin, with his bulging sad eyes, was unlike any other writer who had visited him. Baldwin's soft manner was far different from the wised-up style of most of the journalists Liston had known, and so he spoke to Baldwin in a different tone, with his defenses down. "Colored people say they don't want their children to look up to me," Liston told Baldwin with great sorrow. "Well, they ain't teaching their children to look up to Martin Luther King, either." Liston seemed to be issuing a plea through Baldwin. "I wouldn't be no bad example if I was up there. I could tell a lot of those children what they need to know because I passed that way. I could make them listen."

    Baldwin went away from his meeting with Liston liking him, but racked with confusion. In Patterson-Liston, the heavyweight championship was once more a morality play; what was unique was that the opponents were both black and represented opposing styles of rhetoric, of political style and action. Baldwin's essay for Nugget was not his best, but in it he was able to rehearse some of the themes he would develop the following year in what would be his most thorough statement on race, The Fire Next Time. "I felt terribly ambivalent, as many Negroes do these days," he wrote of Liston, "since we are all trying to decide, in one way or another, which attitude, in our terrible American dilemma, is the more effective: the disciplined sweetness of Floyd, or the outspoken intransigence of Liston.... Liston is a man aching for respect and responsibility. Sometimes we grow into our responsibilities and sometimes, of course, we fail them."

    Baldwin's antagonist at the fight, his erstwhile friend Mailer, did not approach his chore with the same sadness or sense of burden. If Baldwin approached fight night with dread, Mailer looked forward to it with pleasure--the event was, after all, an opportunity both to witness something memorable and to perform. For all the ambition, energy, and self-advertisement he poured into the novels following The Naked and the Dead--The Deer Park, Barbary Shore, An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam?--his journalism for Esquire and Harper's and Life was far more than a job done for money. His dispatches, written at great speed and length, from prizefights and political conventions, crackled with an energy that laid waste the conventions of fifties gentility. He was never more on the job than he was in Chicago for the Patterson-Liston fight. Patterson, he wrote,

was a liberal's liberal. The worst to be said about Patterson is that he spoke with the same cow's cud as other liberals. Think what happens to a man with Patterson's reflexes when his brain starts to depend on the sounds of "introspective," "obligation," "responsibility," "inspiration," "commendation," "frustrated," "seclusion"--one could name a dozen others from his book. They are a part of his pride; he is a boy from the slums of Bedford-Stuyvesant who has acquired these words like stocks and bonds and income-bearing properties. There is no one to tell him it would be better to keep the psychology of the streets than to cultivate the contradictory desire to be a great fighter and a great, healthy, mature, autonomous, related, integrated individual. What a shabby gentility there has been to Patterson's endeavor....
    But the deepest reason that Negroes in Chicago had for preferring Patterson was that they did not want to enter again the logic of Liston's world. The Negro had lived in violence, had grown in violence, and yet had developed a view of life which gave him life. But its cost was exceptional for the ordinary man. The majority had to live in shame. The demand for courage may have been exorbitant. Now as the Negro was beginning to come into the white man's world, he wanted the logic of the white man's world: annuities, mental hygiene, sociological jargon, committee solutions for the ills of the breast. He was sick of a whore's logic and a pimp's logic, he wanted no more of mother wit, of smarts, or playing the dozens, of battling for true love into the diamond-hard eyes of every classy prostitute and hustler on the street. The Negro wanted Patterson, because Floyd was the proof a man could be successful and yet be secure. If Liston won, the old torment was open again. A man could be successful or he could be secure. He could not have both. If Liston had a saga, the average Negro wanted none of it.

    If, for Mailer, Patterson was the "archetype of the underdog, an impoverished prince," "Liston was Faust. Liston was the light of every racetrack tout who dug a number on the way to work. He was the hero of every man who would war with destiny for so long as he had his gimmick; the cigarette smoker, the lush, the junkie, the tea-head, the fixer, the bitch, the faggot, the switchblade, the gun, the corporate executive, anyone who was fixed on power. It was due to Liston's style of fighting as much as anything else."

    A literary footnote to the Baldwin-Mailer presence in Chicago was a short essay written by a young poet, LeRoi Jones, who had been allied with Allen Ginsberg and the Beat writers in Greenwich Village and who was becoming more of a presence in the Black Arts movement. Unlike Baldwin, who loved the tenderness in Patterson, Jones was disgusted with the champion, calling him an "honorary" white man who craved acceptance in the bourgeois world. He celebrated Liston as a threat, "the big black Negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world." He was "`the huge Negro,' `the bad nigger,' a heavy-faced replica of every whipped up woogie in the world. He is the underdeveloped, have-not (politically naive), backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh." When Jones printed the essay in a collection titled Home, he added a footnote saying that now his heart was with the young Cassius Clay, for only Clay could represent the new militant, the truly independent black man.

    At the remove of nearly forty years, when boxing has become a marginal event in American life, all this symbol-mongering heaped on the shoulders of two men belting each other in a ring for money seems faintly ridiculous. But for decades, boxing had been a central spectacle in America, and because it is so stripped-down, one-on-one, a battle with hands and not balls or pads or racquets, the metaphors of struggle, of racial struggle most of all, came easily. Ever since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title in 1908, white boxing fans and, most of all, white promoters required a white hope. Johnson avoided the black contenders of his era--Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey. Instead, his fight was against a Caucasian retiree, the former champion Jim Jeffries. Until late in his career, all of Joe Louis's leading opponents were white:

Schmeling, Billy Conn, Tony Galento. Sugar Ray Robinson fought one white after another--Bobo Olson, Paul Pender, Gene Fullmer, Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio; the promoters rarely offered remotely the same money for bouts against equally tough black challengers. With Patterson-Liston, something had changed. Both men were black; both had grown up with the same hero (Joe Louis), and with similar deprivations and injuries. The narrative of boxing, however, requires an opposition as broad as slapstick. A fight between two members of the same ethnic group has always required a level of differentiation. When John L. Sullivan, the first modern heavyweight champion, defended his bareknuckle title in 1889 against Jake Kilrain, Sullivan was required to play the bad Irish immigrant who drank and took lots of women to bed while Kilrain was the good immigrant, the virtuous worker. Until Patterson-Liston, the press did not bother much with drawing differences between blacks.

    Now the symbolic differences between the two fighters were obvious, and the resulting pressures on Patterson, especially, were making his life impossible. Patterson's fear was evident even in his carriage at the weigh-in, a ritual that has always required of fighters a molten stare or, at least, a chilling equanimity. But as Liston glared at Patterson, Patterson stared at his own feet. He never stared at an opponent before a fight. Couldn't risk it. After all, he said, "we're going to fight, which isn't a nice thing." Once, as an amateur, he made the mistake of looking his opponent in the eye and he saw that he had a nice face and the two fighters smiled at each other. From then on Patterson looked at the floor. Except now he had real reason to worry. Sonny Liston wanted to run a truck over him, and he felt if he let it happen he would have failed his family, his country, his president, and his race.

    "I kept thinking about these things right up until the fight," Patterson said later. "When the bell rang and I came out, instead of seeing Liston, I seemed to have a vision of all these people; what they told me and wanted me to do. All I can remember is that I wasn't able to think of the fight at all."

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Table of Contents

Prologue: In Michigan xi
Part 1
1 Underground Man 3
2 Two Minutes, Six Seconds 27
3 Mr. Fury and Mr. Gray 43
4 Stripped 69
Part 2
5 The Bicycle Thief 81
6 Twentieth-Century Exuberance 99
7 Secrets 125
8 Hype 145
Part 3
9 The Cross and the Crescent 163
10 Bear Hunting 173
11 "Eat Your Words!" 183
12 The Changeling 205
Part 4
13 "Save Me, Joe Louis . . ." 221
14 Gunfire 233
15 The Anchor Punch 253
16 What's in a Name? 267
Epilogue: Old Men by the Fire 285
Notes on Sources and Acknowledgments 307
Index 311
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Interviews & Essays

Q:  Are there any current athletes that you would consider on par with Ali in terms of significant social impact?

A:  Only Michael Jordan compares to Ali, but the comparison is apples and oranges, perhaps. Ali and Jordan are sublime athletes, the best in the history of their sports: fierce, fast, extraordinarily dedicated and intelligent, craftsmen, and attentive to the smallest detail. And yet, without any disrespect to Jordan, I'm partial to Ali because of the way his story was played out in interesting times, under enormous political and social stresses, the way he brought a sense of wit and worldliness and cunning to his game. Ali's courage was athletic, but also political and religious; he took up challenges that helped African Americans and reflected a general humanity that is exemplary for all of us.

Q:  What was the biggest surprise you discovered while writing King of the World?

A:  Maybe the biggest surprise was the varieties of tension put on the shoulders of one man, a kid, really: In Sonny Liston, Clay faced the most fearsome fighter since Louis, and at the same time Clay kept his personal and religious transformation a secret for fear of losing the chance of a lifetime.

Q:  What are your thoughts on the tough times that boxing is experiencing these days?

A:  Boxing is popular in certain areas of the world and among various groups here and there, but there's no doubt that overall it's dying. Part of that is that we've woken up to the fact that while boxing's thrills and even beauty are undeniable, so, too, is the damage, the toll. I think as time goes by, certain sports decline (boxing) and others rise (basketball, soccer). What parent wouldn't prefer their kid take up baseball or basketball (or just about anything) and not boxing?

Q:  If you could choose one book to receive this holiday season and one book to give, what would they be?

A:  Among other books, I love the latest from Philip Gourevitch, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, and John McPhee. But you're getting me in trouble: A lot of New Yorker writers have published this season, and I want to get to all of them.

Q:  Who would you consider your literary influences?

A:  Talking about your own literary influences seems a little grand to me, but I can tell you that the writers I love (the dead ones) include Orwell (the journalism, especially), Akhmatova, Chekhov, Melville, Kafka, Hawthorne, and dozens of others. Influence is a strange thing, but clearly the wave of nonfiction writers of my youth in both The New Yorker and Esquire and elsewhere were very meaningful and thrilling: Mailer, Talese, Didion, Kempton, Liebling and Mitchell (of an older generation), Baldwin.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2012

    King of the World, written by David Remnick, tells the amazing s

    King of the World, written by David Remnick, tells the amazing story of Muhammad Ali. Ali was more than just a boxer, as a converted muslim he stood up for what he beleived in and would not change himself for anybody. Throughout the book Ali cleary stands up for whatever he believes in. What I really like about this novel was that Remnick did a great job analyzing how Muhammad Ali effected America both socially and politically. Anyone interested how sports effect society this book is a must read! Also, anyone who also loves boxing will find this book fasinating.The novel however does not cover Muhammad Ali's whole life so for those interested on a biography look else where. I recommend the book Soul of a Butterfly, written by Muhammad Ali himself on his life.

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  • Posted September 23, 2010

    The Louisville Lip

    David Remnick's novel King of the World is far from a book solely about boxing, it's a book about a person's rise to fame. That person is Muhammad Ali. Remnick provides the reader with extensive details on the fighters who were on top before Ali's time in Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson setting the stage for an extensive tale about the rise of then Cassius Clay. The novel covers all the bases of Ali's rise from the social factors to the negative media reception Ali received originally to the actual fights. David Remnick hits the nail on the head with the content, although it isn't truly a biography. It isn't much of a biography because it is mainly catered towards the rise of Ali as opposed to his entire career. It skims through the rest of his career in the end of the novel, providing much less detail. That didn't bother me, though, as I was more interested in his rise to fame, his personality, and the social factors surrounding him. The novel covered all of that and then some as it had interviews with him and talked about the times surrounding his rise to fame, being during a time of heighted racism in which an extremely cocky, arrogant, talented, and black athlete was not suited to be loved in. The major message the novel was conveying was that it was bringing light to Ali, not making him out to be the best human being, come from the worst beginnings, or be the cleanest boxer in history, but it was showed me how he affected the times greatly and how he was the most recognizable athlete in history. The only thing I disliked about the novel was that it could have gone into a little more detail about the latter half of his career. Other than that, I had no complaints. I loved the detail David Remnick went into explaining people such as mobsters and sportswriters, and events such as prize fights and press conferences. He laid out a perfect image in the reader's head making one feel like they were there. I would recommend this novel to any fan of sports period, anybody who discredits Muhammad Ali's impact on the world, and any fan of Remnick's other work (The Bridge, Lenin's Tomb, etc.). I liked the novel more because it was coming from a more social perspective as opposed to a sports perspective. He talked much more about the issues surrounding Ali than most writers would. Overall, I would give the novel 5 stars out of 5 and would recommend someone to read any other David Remnick novel who liked this novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2005

    Boxing and reading like a champ

    Ali was'nt the king of boxing for nothing he changed boxing made it one of the greatest sports in the world thats why this book is one the greatest books to read about Ali.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2002

    Great book, not enough info to be called a 'biogrophy'

    I believe that the book is very well written, tells a lot of info about his early life, but it has about 40 years missing to be a so-called 'biography'. It has great detail up until the Patterson-Ali fight and his struggle with the government over his draft, but after that it tells the rest of his career in about 20 pages, which I believe is the most interesting part. I expected to read about the Frazier-Ali fights and the Rumble in the Jungle in great detail, but very little detail is given. Almost half of his professional career is missing. Other than that, it was an excellent book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2002

    'Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee'

    It was February 25 1964, almost 21 years before I was born, that Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay stepped in the ring with Charles `Sonny¿ Liston,. Many regarded the brash young boxer as a talker and dancer, but seven rounds later Ali `was the King! The King of the World!¿ and the new world heavyweight boxing champion, one who would change the face of boxing forever. Years after the upset, David Remnick, Pulitzer Prize winner for his book Lenin¿s Tomb (1993) and now editor for the magazine The New Yorker wrote his biographical account of the American Boxing Era and the American hero who changed the face of boxing, Muhammad Ali. The biographical account titled: ¿King of the World¿ showcases the rise of the Louisville, Kentucky born fighter and his victorious bouts against Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. So how does Remnick do it? In constructing this masterpiece, he paid particular note to detail both before and after the rise of the American hero, as well as highlighting key events in history, like the assassinations of political figures as John F Kennedy and Malcolm X. In addition Remnick captures the drama and action behind the man, who won the title three times., King of the World, has captured the grace, courage and humour behind one of the greatest athletes and colourful personalities pf his time and indeed still a recognised. Although the price for detail are at times extensive and monotonous, the manipulation of the text to allow the use of inserts of newspaper articles, describing the view of a journalist at that time, is remarkable and almost unique. Remnick constantly makes reference to the journalists that would follow the young boxers around to each fight, as well as giving the reader background information on the characters, not an easy task at all. Like any good biography, King of the World has shown how a middle class painter¿s son became one the greatest boxers of all time. Drawing together, interviews and quotes from numerous sources: like Cassius Clay Senior to journalists like Jimmy Cannon. What makes King of the World a successful biography is the fact that the readers are taken down a path; reminiscent in many ways to Dorothy¿s `Yellow Brick Road¿ in The Wizard of Oz; the path, is intertwining and introduces new characters along the way, as well as a touch of action, excitement and adventure. After celebrating the cores of the book, we examine the characters like Sonny Liston, Elijah Muhammad, Floyd Patterson and of course Muhammad Ali and see that there was more to boxing then getting into a ring, it was a battle, in and out of the ring, in and out of the media spotlight and in the boxer¿s mind. David Remnick in his account has put the ingredients into the bowl and has moulded it into this great book. Muhammad Ali was able to `fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee¿ and there is no doubt that he is `The Greatest¿. As for Remnick, he has proven himself to be an able writer, by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1993; and following in the footsteps of his prize winning book, King of the World is a captivating and engaging book, worth a read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2002

    I like this book alot

    This is a great book.it is about Muhammad Ali(Chaous Clay).He was called the king because he was the greatest fighter in history.He surprised many people.He had alot of mouth and the skills to back it up.That is why you should read this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2002

    More than a book about boxing

    As a child I remember the Ali fights being events in my home. I lived in England and my parents had few black heros...Ali was one of them...when I finished this book I felt connected to a man I have never met and humbled by the mark he has left in history...The text is enriching and the fight scenes come alive on the page...in his twenties Ali was loved and hated in the same breath by black and whites alike, but he believe in himself and found the spiritual guidance he needed to support his confidence...he stuck to his plan and knew what he wanted and that takes courage...I was sadden by his re-action to Malcolm X treatment my the nation of Islam, and I believe he is still haunted by that himself. So¿ thank you Mr. Remick for making the time to bring this wonderful part of history and a living legend into my life...if you have not read this book...what are you waiting for!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 8, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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