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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Then and now, Muhammad Ali stands alone. In a society abundant with premier athletes, Ali transcended the realm of boxing and even sports as a whole, extending his charismatic influence beyond the ring, beyond race, beyond national borders, beyond his times. And in Redemption Song— Mike Marqusee's satisfying exploration of the man and the heightened aura of the '60s — Ali emerges as a potent, unique figure on the world stage.
Applauded today as the quintessential American hero, Ali was once castigated as an unpatriotic religious demagogue. But whatever the age, the simple utterance of the name "Ali" automatically evokes strong responses. The lyrical showman. The defiant spirit. The cocksure athlete. The blatant nonconformist. The penitent searcher. Redemption Song is a superbly written account of Ali's very public transformation and growth and how it intertwined with the turbulent '60s.
Beginning even earlier, Marqusee opens with a reexamination of Ali's historical predecessors — like Jack Johnston and Joe Louis — and the dynamics of the sport of boxing. Controlled by a wealthy elite, boxing thrived on the pent-up bloodlust of the urban proletariat. White bosses, white fans, white fighters. When blacks first succeeded in the ring, that success had to be muted. Black athletes were accepted only if they were deferential "passive spokesmen for whites" or "dense unintelligent brutes."
But, in the parlance of the day, a change was gonna come. Cassius Clay, as Ali was known at the start of his career, shattered the stereotypes and demandedredress.When Clay shockingly defeated the much-favored Sonny Liston and won the heavyweight title, the world was compelled to take notice of this brash-talking phenom. As never before, a black man stood above the crowd, openly proud of his own accomplishments. From that moment, the young man with the quick jab, lightning tongue, and facile mind charmed and challenged the public.
Marqusee meticulously chronicles Clay's spiritual journey toward the Nation of Islam and his budding relationship with Malcolm X. Ali's rejection of the "Clay" identity— his slave name, as it was termed— coincided with his adoption of "Muhammad Ali." The new outward designation marked a momentous internal transformation.
For a celebrity of Ali's stature to embrace the hard-line philosophy espoused by Elijah Muhammad prompted much debate. This aspect of Ali's quest, tenderly recounted by Marqusee, rings strong and true, conveying the competing, sometimes contradictory forces at work. Although his reasoning was questioned at times, Ali's convictions were generally applauded— even when they were unpopular. Redemption Song deftly delineates tensions between Ali's political stances and those espoused by several civil rights activists. While Ali's positions on integration and the Vietnam War were reflective of the national debates, his impact carried farther than most contemporary observers realized, according to Marqusee. By speaking his heart and his mind, Ali crystallized political actions, at home and abroad.
When Ali said, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," the statement resonated around the globe. In Trinidad, calypso musicians wrote songs sparked by Ali's defiance, inspiring Caribbean youth to question their countries' relationship to lingering British imperialism.
In the early 1970s, two seminal fights— the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the "Thriller in Manila"— extended beyond being mere boxing matches. Both contests grew into major cultural happenings that elevated Ali into a much larger arena. Ali, the boxer, could no longer be contained by the ring. His travels to Africa, in particular, forged new bonds between African Americans and the peoples of such diverse countries as Mali, Ghana, and the Congo. In several remarkable ways, Marqusee contrasts the struggles for African independence with the struggles against Jim Crow laws in the American South. Through these comparisons, Ali emerges as having been quite influential in shaping popular culture and in the growth of the black Atlantic consciousness.
Ali's many successes resound through the pages of Redemption Song. However, just as the very name of the book evokes Bob Marley's rhythmic commentary, it also connotes the many battles Ali fought in and out of the boxing ring. The word "redemption" could easily allude to Ali's physical rebirth after his devastating bouts with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Leon Spinks. Perhaps, for some, "redemption" speaks of hope for a man whose intermittent extramarital affairs brought both public scrutiny and private anguish. Or perhaps maybe the title comments about the state of American race relations that Ali so remarkably reflected.
Then again, "redemption" is a somewhat incongruous term, as it neither defines Muhammad Ali nor the '60s. After all, Ali's stance was consistently unapologetic, a strident message delivered with boisterous voice and demeanor. "I am the greatest," he intoned, proving it repeatedly. However, Marqusee's most refreshing insight is the wonderful complexity of Ali's personality. The '60s cannot be viewed through a narrow lens, nor can Ali.
Attempting to understand Ali without delving into his intricate persona and the reasons for his actions is to box with a shadow of ill-defined shape and less substance. Thanks to Mike Marqusee's Redemption Song, Muhammad Ali comes into clear focus, as do the energetic times that swirled around him. And much like the greatest poets, Ali both reflected and directed his age.