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

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

4.0 11
by David Remnick

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With an Introduction by Salman Rushdie

On the night in 1964 that Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) stepped into the ring with Sonny Liston, he was widely regarded as an irritating freak who danced and talked way too much. Six rounds later Ali was not only the new world heavyweight boxing champion: He was "a new kind of black man" who would


With an Introduction by Salman Rushdie

On the night in 1964 that Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) stepped into the ring with Sonny Liston, he was widely regarded as an irritating freak who danced and talked way too much. Six rounds later Ali was not only the new world heavyweight boxing champion: He was "a new kind of black man" who would shortly transform America's racial politics, its popular culture, and its notions of heroism.
No one has captured Ali--and the era that he exhilarated and sometimes infuriated--with greater vibrancy, drama, and astuteness than David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lenin's Tomb (and editor of The New Yorker). In charting Ali's rise from the gyms of Louisville, Kentucky, to his epochal fights against Liston and Floyd Patterson, Remnick creates a canvas of unparalleled richness. He gives us empathetic portraits of wisecracking sportswriters and bone-breaking mobsters; of the baleful Liston and the haunted Patterson; of an audacious Norman Mailer and an enigmatic Malcolm X. Most of all, King of the World does justice to the speed, grace, courage, humor, and ebullience of one of the greatest athletes and irresistibly dynamic personalities of our time.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

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.
New York Times
Penetrating. . .an amazine story, and Mr. Remnick captures the best of it.
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
Wall Street Journal
Succeeds more than any previous book in bringing Ali into focus.
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?"
Boston Globe
A worthy tribute to Ali.
L.S. Klepp
. . .Intelligent, informed, enlightened. . . —Entertainment Weekly
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

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"
The Wall Street Journal
Succeeds more than any previous book in bringing Ali into focus.
The Boston Globe
A worthy tribute to Ali.
L.S. Klepp
. . .Intelligent, informed, enlightened. . .
-- Entertainment Weekly
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.

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The promoter of the Liston-Clay fight was William B. MacDonald, a former bus conductor who had made so great a fortune that he now got around in two Rolls-Royces and a fifty-foot cruiser named Snoozie. MacDonald was born in Butte in 1908, the descendant, he said, of generations of sheep thieves. There being few sheep to steal in Butte, he came to Miami and made his money in the parking business, then in laundry and dry cleaning, then in restaurant management, trucking, mobile homes, and a mortgage company based in San Juan. He married a Polish woman named Victoria and, just for fun, bought a stud farm in Delray Beach and a Class D baseball team called the Tampa Tarpons. MacDonald handed out gold cuff links like Chiclets. He lived in a quarter-million-dollar house in Bal Harbour and retained an assistant named Sugar Vallone, late of the bartending trade. His generosity as a father was unparalleled. He built his daughter a tree house with drapes and carpeting matching the main house, and for his daughter's eighth birthday he installed a jukebox in the tree. Bill MacDonald had a good time. He smoked his cigars and ate his steaks. He played golf and decorated his walls with the many marlin he had pulled out of the Atlantic. On the golf course, driving his cart, he held a Coke in his right hand and a root beer in his left, and steered with his forearms and his belly. He was very fat.

MacDonald had enjoyed his experience so far in the boxing business. He made some money, if not a lot, promoting the third Patterson-Johansson fight. When he first talked to Chris Dundee about a Liston-Clay title bout, it seemed a no-lose proposition. There was money to be made, what with all the big-money tourists and the winter crowds in Miami in February. How could it flop? Liston was already the most fearsome presence in boxing since Louis and Marciano, and Clay, with his mouth flapping, would sell as many tickets as the Miami fire laws would permit. No lose. And so MacDonald, who had $800,000 invested in the fight, serenely pegged the top ticket at an unprecedented $250.

MacDonald envisioned a great night, the ring surrounded by movie people and all the usual hustlers, the big-roll guys. He wanted all the big faces up close. "A guy calls me, for instance, wants to buy a hundred-dollar seat for Andy Williams," he told a reporter for Sports Illustrated. "I tell him Andy Williams's got to be up there with the big kids. I can't imagine him sitting back there with the little kids. He's got to be in there with the wheels, not the hubcaps."

Although MacDonald was not exactly expert in boxing, he was smart enough to tell the writers he was acutely aware of the possibility of surprise in the fight. "I figure Clay to win it," he said. "He'll take the title if he stays away, jabs and runs, but the little jerk is so egotistical--he's getting hysterical--he thinks he can punch Liston's nose sideways. It's liable to be a stinky fight to watch, but if Clay gets by seven or eight he's likely to win it." One could appreciate the sentiment if not the subtlety of MacDonald's maneuver. You don't sell tickets when David has no shot at Goliath.

MacDonald did not expect Liston to get into a verbal war with Clay before the fight. Liston had become so accustomed to hearing about himself as the indomitable champion, a seven-to-one favorite at the minimum, that he trained at the Surfside Civic Auditorium in North Miami Beach with a smug air of business as usual. In contrast to Clay's gloriously dismal surroundings at the Fifth Street Gym, Liston sparred with air-conditioning. An announcer would intone the next station of the cross--"The champion at the heavy bag"--and Liston would pound away for a short while. Then his cornermen, led by Willie Reddish, would rush to him and towel him off as if he were Cleopatra. Reddish would wing a medicine ball at Liston's gut a dozen times and then Liston would skip rope to "Night Train," as he had on The Ed Sullivan Show.

"Note that the champion's heels never touch the board," the master of ceremonies announced. "He does all this off his toes."
Liston trained the way Liberace played piano; it was a garish representation of a boxer at work. If Liston was taking Clay at all seriously, it was very hard to tell. He would not even deign to pretend to loathe his challenger. "I don't hate Cassius Clay," he said. "I love him so much I'm giving him twenty-two and a half percent of the gate. Clay means a lot to me. He's my baby, my million-dollar baby. I hope he keeps well and I sure hope he shows up." Liston's only health concern, he allowed, was for the destiny of his vaunted left fist: "It's gonna go so far down his throat, it'll take a week for me to pull it out again."

The columnists may not have liked Liston, but they respected him as a fighter. They figured him an easy winner over Clay. Lester Bromberg of the New York World-Telegram said the fight would "follow the pattern" of the two Liston-Patterson fights, the only difference being that this would last longer: "It will last almost the entire first round." Nearly all the columnists were middle-aged, raised on Joe Louis, and they were inclined to like Clay even less than Liston. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times predicted that the Liston-Clay matchup would be "the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin--180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout. The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary. . . . His public utterances have all the modesty of a German ultimatum to Poland but his public performances run more to Mussolini's navy."

At the Fifth Street Gym, of course, Clay was exerting considerable energy in his post-training-session press conferences. Day after day he described how he would spend the first five rounds circling "the big ugly bear," tiring him out, and then tear him apart with hooks and uppercuts until finally Liston would drop to all fours in submission. "I'm gonna put that ugly bear on the floor, and after the fight I'm gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him. People think I'm joking. I'm not joking. I'm serious. This will be the easiest fight of my life." He told the visiting reporters that now was their chance to "jump on the bandwagon." He was taking names, he said, keeping track of all the naysayers, and when he won "I'm going to have a little ceremony and some eating is going on--eating of words." Day after day he would replay his homage to Gorgeous George when describing what he'd do in case of a Liston win: "You tell this to your camera, your newspaper, your TV man, your radio man, you tell this to the world: If Sonny Liston whups me, I'll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he's the greatest, and catch the next jet out of the country." Most spectacularly, he composed in honor of the occasion what was surely his best poem. Over the years, Clay would farm out some of his poetical work. "We all wrote lines here and there," Dundee said. But this one was all Clay. Ostensibly, it was a prophetic vision of the eighth round, and no poem, before or after, could beat it for narrative drive, precise scansion, and wit. It was his "Song of Myself":

Clay comes out to meet Liston
And Liston starts to retreat
If Liston goes back any further
He'll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with a left,
Clay swings with a right,
Look at young Cassius
Carry the fight.
Liston keeps backing
But there's not enough room
It's a matter of time.
There, Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay swings with a right,
What a beautiful swing,
And the punch raises the bear,
Clear out of the ring.
Liston is still rising
And the ref wears a frown,
For he can't start counting,
Till Sonny comes down.
Now Liston disappears from view.
The crowd is getting frantic,
But our radar stations have picked him up
He's somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought
When they came to the fight
That they'd witness the launching
Of a human satellite?
Yes, the crowd did not dream
When they laid down their money
That they would see
A total eclipse of the Sonny!
I am the greatest!

Nearly all the writers regarded Clay's bombast, in prose and verse, as the ravings of a lunatic. But not only did Clay have a sense of how to fill a reporter's notebook and, thus, a promoter's arena, he had a sense of self. The truth (and it was a truth he shared with almost no one) was that Cassius Clay knew that for all his ability, for all his speed and cunning, he had never met a fighter like Sonny Liston. In Liston, he was up against a man who did not merely beat his opponents, but hurt them, damage them, shame them in humiliatingly fast knockouts. Liston could put a man away with his jab; he was not much for dancing, but then neither was Joe Louis. Liston was the prototype of what a heavyweight champion should be: he threw bomb after unforgiving bomb. When he hit a man in the solar plexus the glove seemed lost up to the cuff; he was too powerful to grab and clinch; nothing hurt him. Clay was too smart, he had watched too many films, not to know that. "That's why I always knew that all of Clay's bragging was a way to convince himself that he could do what he said he'd do," Floyd Patterson told me many years later. "I never liked all his bragging. It took me a long time to understand who Clay was talking to. Clay was talking to Clay."

Very few people would ever know how true that was and how much Clay feared Liston. One evening, just before signing the contracts for the fight, he visited Sports Illustrated's offices on the twentieth floor of the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan. It was seven-thirty and Clay stood at the window looking out at the lights blinking along Sixth Avenue and beyond. He was quiet for a long time.

Finally, the writer Mort Sharnik said, "Cassius, all these things you're saying about Liston, do you really mean them? Do you really think you're going to beat this guy?"
"I'm Christopher Columbus," he said slowly. "I believe I'll win. I've never been in there with him, but I believe the world is round and they all believe the world is flat. Maybe I'll fall off the world at the horizon but I believe the world is round."
Clay had doubts, but he used those doubts the way a black belt in judo uses the weight of his assailant. Weeks before the fight, he approached Liston's manager, Jack Nilon, and said, "You know, I shot my mouth off to make this fight a success. My day of reckoning is about to come. If the worst happens I want to get out of there quick. I'd like to provision my bus and get out of there quick." Then he asked Jack Nilon for ten thousand dollars for the provisioning.

"No one could read this kid," Sharnik would say. "It was hard to know if he was the craziest kid you ever saw or the smartest."
Bill MacDonald never hoped to convince the public that Clay was a modest fellow in the Louis mold, but he had hoped that the writers would think he could fight. They did not. According to one poll, 93 percent of the writers accredited to cover the fight predicted Liston would win. What the poll did not register was the firmness of the predictions. Arthur Daley, the New York Times columnist, seemed to object morally to the fight, as if the bout were a terrible crime against children and puppies: "The loudmouth from Louisville is likely to have a lot of vainglorious boasts jammed down his throat by a hamlike fist belonging to Sonny Liston. . . ."

In the later acts of his career, Muhammad Ali would take his place in the television firmament and his Boswell would be Howard Cosell. But in the days preceding his fight with Sonny Liston in Miami, Cassius Clay was not yet Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell was a bald, nasal guy on the radio who annoyed his colleagues with his portentous questions and his bulky tape recorder, which he was forever bashing into someone's giblets. Newspapers were still the dominant force in sports; columnists--white columnists--were the dominant voices; and Jimmy Cannon, late of the New York Post and, since 1959, of the New York Journal-American, was the king of the columnists. Cannon was the first thousand-dollar-a-week man, Hemingway's favorite, Joe DiMaggio's buddy, and Joe Louis's iconographer. Red Smith, who wrote for the Herald Tribune, employed an elegant restraint in his prose that put him ahead of the game with more high-minded readers, but Cannon was the popular favorite: a world-weary voice of the city. Cannon was king, and Cannon had no sympathy for Cassius Clay. He did not even think he could fight.

One afternoon shortly before the fight, Cannon was sitting with George Plimpton at the Fifth Street Gym watching Clay spar. Clay glided around the ring, a feather in the slipstream, and every so often he popped a jab into his sparring partner's face. Plimpton was completely taken with Clay's movement, his ease, but Cannon could not bear to watch.

"Look at that!" Cannon said. "I mean, that's terrible. He can't get away with that. Not possibly." It was just unthinkable that Clay could beat Liston by running, carrying his hands at his hips, and defending himself simply by leaning away.

"Perhaps his speed will make up for it," Plimpton put in hopefully.
"He's the fifth Beatle," Cannon said. "Except that's not right. The Beatles have no hokum to them."
"It's a good name," Plimpton said. "The fifth Beatle."
"Not accurate," Cannon said. "He's all pretense and gas, that fellow. . . . No honesty."

Clay offended Cannon's sense of rightness the way flying machines offended his father's generation. It threw his universe off kilter.
"In a way, Clay is a freak," he wrote before the fight. "He is a bantamweight who weighs more than two hundred pounds."
Cannon's objections went beyond the ring. His hero was Joe Louis, and for Joe Louis he composed the immortal line that he was a "credit to his race--the human race." He admired Louis's "barbaric majesty," his quiet in suffering, his silent satisfaction in victory. And when Louis finally went on too long and, way past his peak, fought Rocky Marciano, he eulogized the broken-down old fighter as the metaphysical poets would a slain mistress: "The heart, beating inside the body like a fierce bird, blinded and caged, seemed incapable of moving the cold blood through the arteries of Joe Louis's rebellious body. His thirty-seven years were a disease which paralyzed him."

Cannon was born in 1910 in what he called "the unfreaky part of Greenwich Village." His father was a minor, if kindly, servant of Tammany Hall. The family lived in cold-water flats in the Village, and Cannon got to know the neighborhood and its workmen, the icemen, the coal delivery boys. Cannon dropped out of school after the ninth grade and caught on as a copy boy at the Daily News and never left the newspaper business. As a young reporter he caught the eye of Damon Runyon when he wrote dispatches on the Lindbergh kidnapping trial for the International News Service.

"The best way to be a bum and earn a living is to write sports," Runyon told Cannon and then helped him get a job at a Hearst paper, The New York American. Like his heroes, Runyon and the Broadway columnist Mark Hellinger, Cannon gravitated to the world of the "delicatessen nobility," to the bookmakers and touts, the horse players and talent agents, who hung out at Toots Shor's and Lindy's, the Stork Club and El Morocco. When Cannon went off to Europe to write battle dispatches for The Stars and Stripes, he developed what would become his signature style: florid, sentimental prose with an underpinning of hard-bitten wisdom, an urban style that he had picked up in candy stores and nightclubs and from Runyon, Ben Hecht, and Westbrook Pegler. After having been attached to George Patton's Third Army, Cannon came home newly attached to the Post. His sports column, which would be the city's most popular for a quarter century, began in 1946 and was dubbed "Jimmy Cannon Says."

Cannon was an obsessive worker, a former boozer who drank more coffee than Balzac. He lived alone--first at the Edison Hotel, then on Central Park West, and finally on Fifty-fifth Street. He was a cranky egomaniac whose ego only grew with age. He sweated every column. When he wasn't at a ball game or at his desk, he was out all night, wandering from nightclub to nightclub, listening always for tips, for stray bits of talk that could make their way into his column. "His column is his whole life," said one of his colleagues, W. C. Heinz of the New York Sun. "He has no family, no games he plays, no other activities. When he writes it's the concentration of his whole being. He goes through the emotional wringer. I have no idea what Jimmy would do if he weren't writing that column, he'd be so lonesome."

For his time, Cannon was considered enlightened on the subject of race. That is to say that unlike many other columnists he did not make fun of the black athletes he covered, he did not transform their speech into Amos 'n' Andy routines. He gave them their due. As much as he adored DiMaggio, a fighter like Archie Moore captured his schmaltz-clogged heart just as easily:

"Someone should write a song about Archie Moore who in the Polo Grounds knocked out Bobo Olson in three rounds. I don't mean big composers such as Harold Arlen or Duke Ellington. It should be a song that comes out of the backroom of sloughed saloons on night-drowned streets in morning-worried parts of bad towns. The guy who writes this one must be a piano player who can be dignified when he picks a quarter out of the marsh of a sawdust floor. They're dead, most of those piano players, their mouths full of dust instead of songs. But I'll bet Archie could dig one up in any town he ever made."  Cannon was also a master of the barstool non sequitur. Very often he would title his column "Nobody Asked Me, But . . ." and then line up a few dozen choice thoughts:

"I have more faith in brusque doctors than oily-mannered ones."
"You're middle-aged if you remember Larry Semon, the comic."
"El Morocco is still the most exciting nightclub in the country."
"Doesn't Marty Glickman, the sports announcer, sound like an Atlantic City boardwalk auctioneer?"
"Guys who use other people's coffee saucers as ashtrays should be banned from public places. . . ."
He would begin other columns by putting the reader inside the skull and uniform of a ballplayer ("You're Eddie Stanky. You ran slower than the other guy . . ."), and elsewhere, in that voice of El Morocco at three in the morning, he would dispense wisdom on the subject he seemed to know the least about--women: "Any man is in difficulty if he falls in love with a woman he can't knock down with the first punch." Or, "You can tell when a broad starts in managing a fighter. What makes a dumb broad smart all of a sudden? They don't even let broads in a joint like Yale. But they're all wised up once a fighter starts making a few."

There are not many writers of any sort who do not date quickly, and journalistic writing, with rare exceptions, dates as quickly as the newsprint it's written on. Even some of Mencken dates, and Cannon was no Mencken. The wised-up one-liners and the world-weary sentiment were of a time and a place, and as Cannon aged he gruffly resisted the new trends in sportswriting and athletic behavior. In the press box, he encountered a new generation of beat writers and columnists, men such as Maury Allen and Leonard Schecter on the Post. He didn't much like the sound of them. Cannon called the younger men "Chipmunks" because they were always chattering away in the press box. He hated their impudence, their irreverence, their striving to get outside the game and into the heads of the people they covered. Cannon had always said that his intention as a sportswriter was to bring the "world in over the bleacher wall," but he failed to see that this generation was trying to do much the same thing. He could not bear their lack of respect for the old verities. "They go up and challenge guys with rude questions," Cannon once said of the Chipmunks. "They think they're big if they walk up to an athlete and insult him with a question. They regard this as a sort of bravery."

Part of Cannon's anxiety was sheer competitiveness. There were seven newspapers in those days in New York, and there was terrific competition to stay on top, to be original, to get a scoop, an extra detail. But the Chipmunks knew they were in competition now not so much with one another as with the growing power of television. Unlike Cannon, who was almost entirely self-educated, these were young men (and they were all men) who had gone to college in the age of Freud. They became interested in the psychology of an athlete ("The Hidden Fears of Kenny Sears" was one of Milton Gross's longer pieces). In time, this, too, would no longer seem especially voguish--soon just about every schnook with a microphone would be asking the day's goat, "What were you thinking when you missed that ball?"--but for the moment, the Chipmunks were the coming wave and Cannon's purple sentences, once so pleasurable, were beginning to feel less vibrant, a little antique.

Part of Cannon's generational anxiety was that he wrote about ballplayers in an elegiac voice. He had plenty of scorn for the scoundrels of sport--Jim Norris, Frankie Carbo, Fat Tony Salerno--but you would never learn from Cannon that DiMaggio was perhaps the most imperious personality in sport or that Joe Louis, in retirement, was going slowly mad with drugs, that to guard himself against imagined predators from the IRS and the CIA he clogged the air-conditioning vents with cotton and smeared his windows with Vaseline.

The new generation, men like Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield, Jerry Izenberg and Gay Talese, all admired Cannon's immediacy, but Cannon begrudged them their new outlook, their education, their youth. In the late fifties, Talese wrote countless elegant features for the Times and then, even more impressively, a series of profiles in the sixties for Esquire on Patterson, Louis, DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, and the theater director Joshua Logan. None of the pieces were what writers would call "trash jobs"--they were filled with affection for the person and admiration for craft--but they also delved into Patterson's fears, Louis's terrible decline, DiMaggio's loneliness, Sinatra's nastiness, and Logan's mental breakdowns. Talese combined the techniques of reporting and fiction; he filled his notebooks with facts, interviews, and observations, but structured his pieces like short stories.

When Talese was still at the Times and writing about his favorite subjects, Patterson and Cus D'Amato, he was considered an eccentric. In the newsroom, Talese wore immaculate hand-tailored suits; he was, in the words of one colleague, "blindingly handsome." But for all his outward polish and youth, he approached his work like a reporter, seeking out ballplayers, getting to know them. In those days, this was un-Times-like for the sports department. Daley, who was the dominant columnist since the forties, derived his prestige from the paper itself; when he won the Pulitzer Prize, many of his colleagues grumbled and said that it should have gone to Red Smith at the Herald Tribune or Cannon at the Post. Daley's prose was flat, but it was the prose that the Pulitzer committee read, if they read sports at all. Most of the other sportswriters on the Times were no less imperial: they carried themselves as if they were The New York Times's ambassador to the court of baseball or the court of basketball. When Allison Danzig covered the U.S. Open at Forest Hills he did not deign to seek out a tennis player for an interview; the player sought out Allison Danzig. Not a few of the deskmen and reporters were appalled by the unorthodox presence of Gay Talese, and they could never figure out why the managing editor, Turner Catledge, had set him loose on the sporting world.

When Talese left the paper in 1965 to write books and longer magazine articles, he had one inheritor in place, a reporter in his mid-twenties named Robert Lipsyte. Like Cannon, Lipsyte grew up in New York, but he was a middle-class Jew from the Rego Park neighborhood in Queens. He went from his junior year at Forest Hills High School straight to Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1957. After mulling over a career as a screenwriter or an English professor, Lipsyte applied for a job as a copy boy at the Times and, to his astonishment, got it. "They usually said they hired Rhodes scholars in those days," he said. As a copy boy, Lipsyte admired Talese for his sense of style and innovation, for his ability to squeeze a distinct voice onto the uniform pages of the Times. Lipsyte made the staff at twenty-one when he showed hustle: one day the hunting and fishing columnist failed to send in a column from Cuba, and so Lipsyte sat down and, on deadline, knocked out a strange and funny column on how fish and birds were striking back at anglers and hunters. Lipsyte wrote about high school basketball players like Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown. He helped cover the 1962 Mets with Louis Effrat, a Timesman who had lost the Dodgers beat when they moved out of Brooklyn. Effrat's admiration for his younger colleague was, to say the least, grudging: "Kid, they say in New York you can really write but you don't know what the fuck you're writing about."

If there was one subject that Lipsyte made it a point to learn about, it was race. In 1963, he met Dick Gregory, one of the funniest comics in the country and a constant presence in the civil rights movement. The two men became close friends, and eventually Lipsyte helped Gregory write Nigger, his autobiography. Even as a sports reporter, Lipsyte contrived ways to write about race. He wrote about the Blackstone Rangers gang, he got to know Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. He covered rallies at which black protesters expressed their outrage against a country that would celebrate blacks only when they carried a football or boxed in a twenty-foot ring.

In the winter of 1963-64, the Times's regular boxing writer, Joe Nichols, declared that the Liston-Clay fight was a dog and that he was going off to spend the season covering racing at Hialeah. The assignment went to Lipsyte.

Unlike Jimmy Cannon and the other village elders, Lipsyte found himself entranced with Clay. Here was this funny, beautiful, skilled young man who could fill your notebook in fifteen minutes.

"Clay was unique, but it wasn't as if he were some sort of creature from outer space for me," Lipsyte said. "For Jimmy Cannon, he was, pardon the expression, an uppity nigger, and he could never handle that. The blacks he liked were the blacks of the thirties and the forties. They knew their place. Joe Louis called Jimmy Cannon 'Mr. Cannon' for a long time. He was a humble kid. Now here comes Cassius Clay popping off and abrasive and loud, and it was a jolt for a lot of sportswriters, like Cannon. That was a transition period. What Clay did was make guys stand up and decide which side of the fence they were on.

"Clay upset the natural order of things at two levels. The idea that he was a loud braggart brought disrespect to this noble sport. Or so the Cannon people said. Never mind that Rocky Marciano was a slob who would show up at events in a T-shirt so that the locals would buy him good clothes. They said that Clay 'lacked dignity.' Clay combined Little Richard and Gorgeous George. He was not the sort of sweet dumb pet that writers were accustomed to. Clay also did not need the sportswriters as a prism to find his way. He transcended the sports press. Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith, so many of them, were appalled. They didn't see the fun in it. And, above all, it was fun."

A week before the fight, Clay stretched out on a rubbing table at the Fifth Street Gym and told the reporters who gathered around, "I'm making money, the popcorn man making money, and the beer man, and you got something to write about."

The next day, Lipsyte heard that the Beatles would be dropping by the Fifth Street Gym. The visit had been arranged, of course, by the eternally hip Harold Conrad, who was publicizing the fight for MacDonald. The Beatles were in Miami to do The Ed Sullivan Show. Liston had actually gone to their performance and was not much impressed. As the Beatles ripped through their latest single, the champion turned to Conrad and said, "Are these motherfuckers what all the people are screaming about? My dog plays drums better than that kid with the big nose." Conrad figured that Clay would understand a bit better.

Lipsyte was twenty-six, a card-carrying member of the rock and roll generation, and he saw that for all its phoniness, a meeting between the Beatles and Clay was a meeting of the New, two acts that would mark the sixties. The older columnists passed, but he saw a story.

The Beatles arrived. They were still in the mop-top phase, but they were also quite aware of their own appeal. Clay was not in evidence, and Ringo Starr was angry.
"Where the fuck's Clay?" he said.
To kill a few minutes, Ringo began introducing the members of the band to Lipsyte and a few other reporters, though he introduced George Harrison as Paul and Lennon as Harrison, and finally Lennon lost patience.
"Let's get the fuck out of here," he said. But two Florida state troopers blocked the door and somehow kept them in the gym just long enough for Clay to show up.
"Hello, there, Beatles," said Cassius Clay. "We oughta do some road shows together. We'll get rich."
The photographers lined up the Beatles in the ring and Clay faked a punch to knock them all to the canvas: the domino punch.
Now the future of music and the future of sports began talking about the money they were making and the money they were going to make.
"You're not as stupid as you look," Clay said.
"No," Lennon said, "but you are."
Clay checked to make sure Lennon was smiling, and he was.

The younger writers, like Lipsyte, really did see Clay as a fifth Beatle, parallel players in the great social and generational shift in American society. The country was in the midst of an enormous change, an earthquake, and this fighter from Louisville and this band from Liverpool were part of it, leading it, whether they knew it yet or not. The Beatles' blend of black R&B and Liverpool pop and Clay's blend of defiance and humor was changing the sound of the times, its temper; set alongside the march on Washington and the quagmire in Vietnam, they would, in their way, become essential pieces of the sixties phantasmagoria.

For most of the older columnists, however, this PR-inspired scene at the Fifth Street Gym was just more of all that was going wrong in the world, more noise, more disrespect, more impudence from young men whom they could not hope to comprehend. "Clay is part of the Beatle movement," Jimmy Cannon would write famously a few years later. "He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear and the punks riding motorcycles with iron crosses pinned to their leather jackets and Batman and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments and the revolt of students who get a check from Dad every first of the month and the painters who copy the labels off soup cans and the surf bums who refuse to work and the whole pampered style-making cult of the bored young."

What People are Saying About This

David Halberstam
Remnick is . . . one of the signature figures in a wonderful new generation of nonfiction writers.
David Halberstam
Remnick is . . . one of the signature figures in a wonderful new generation of nonfiction writers.
Bob Costas
By now we have our notions about what Ali meant -- to his time and to the history of his sport. 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.
Toni Morrison
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.

Meet the Author

David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. He began his career as a sportswriter for The Washington Post and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Lenin's Tomb. He is also the author of Resurrection and The Devil Problem and Other True Stories, a collection of essays. He lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.

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King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LukeDan More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!