LORD OF THE RING
David Remnick's Muhammad Ali
11:00 PM, Dec 13, 1998 • By BRIAN MURRAY
It's October 30, 1974 and the fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali is about to start. Set in Kinshasa, Zaire, the bout has been hyped for months, dubbed "The Rumble in the Jungle" by its promoter, Don King. Foreman is the reigning heavyweight champion and heavy favorite; he's a massive, mean, undefeated slugger who has knocked out thirty-seven opponents in forty fights.
But for months Ali has been publicly mocking Foreman, questioning his intelligence, his durability, his might, dismissing him as an "amateur" and a "mummy" who gained his title by beating "bums." "This fight," Ali promises, "will be the greatest upset of which anyone has ever heard."
Now, at fight-time, Foreman tries a psychological ploy of his own. Ali's already in his corner, but for several long minutes Foreman refuses to appear. It's an old boxing trick: The champ dawdles in his dressing room so that his challenger, alone in the ring, can consider more fully the hard flogging he's about to receive.
But Foreman's plan backfires. Ali shows nothing but confidence and calm. As he waits, he shadowboxes; he prays; he welcomes -- and leads -- the crowd's cheers. And by the time Foreman finally pushes through the ropes, it's clear that few in the packed stadium are on his side. They're all lustily backing the handsome and amusing underdog -- a man who has long billed himself as "The World's Most Colorful Fighter."
Of course, Foreman-Ali proved to be one of the most celebrated bouts in modern boxing history -- the subject of Norman Mailer's The Fight, first published in 1975, and Leon Gast's fine 1996 film documentary, When We Were Kings. At its start the two fighters slugged it out, toe-to-toe. But by its close Ali was in complete control. He'd spent much of the match leaning far back against the ropes, taunting Foreman, absorbing a constant shelling of blows. "George," he kept saying, "that all you got?" as Foreman, the knock-out king, hauled back and hammered away. At the end Foreman was dizzy, shot, wide open to Ali's precise jabs and the speedy combination of hard punches that left him senseless on the mat.
Later Ali disclosed that he had flummoxed Foreman with a "Rope-a-Dope" strategy that, he knew, would lure Foreman into wasting his energy in the early rounds. In 1994, at forty-five, Foreman would regain his title with a knock-out of Michael Moorer. But his loss to Ali left him embarrassed and depressed, and in 1977 he left boxing for ten years, uncertain of the skills that had made him the sport's most intimidating figure.
Throughout the 1970s, Ali also "retired," several times. He was bigger, perhaps even stronger, than ever before. He was still bombastic, ever willing to ham it up before cameras and microphones. But as his fight with Foreman showed, Ali -- though still faster than most heavyweights -- was slowing down. He continued to notch some impressive victories. But, like Foreman, he now found himself struggling against fighters he would have outfoxed and outboxed just a few years before. In 1981, against Larry Holmes's left jab -- probably the best in heavyweight history -- Ali mustered no defense. He looked dazed, slow and pathetically vulnerable. Another lopsided loss to the overrated Trevor Berbick proved conclusively that, by 1981, the Ali of old was irretrievably gone.
How good was he? In his new book King of the World, David Remnick (the recently appointed editor of the New Yorker) notes that Ali "built his boxing style on the principle that a big man could borrow the tactics of a smaller man" -- a man like Sugar Ray Robinson, a middleweight and one of Ali's boyhood heroes. Some boxing analysts have argued that this approach -- while aesthetically intriguing -- was all wrong for a man of Ali's size, forcing him to rely too often and for too long on footwork and speed. Thus, unlike the durable Jack Jackson -- another of his heroes -- Ali failed to develop the defensive skills that are part of the repertoire of a truly masterful boxer.
Still, Ali improved steadily as a puncher; he proved too, in his epic battles against Foreman, Ken Norton, and Joe Frazier, that he could stand up to the hardest hitters in the game. He was graceful, resilient, and shrewd. In an era unusually rich in heavyweight talent, Ali never dodged a foe. Foreman, Frazier, Norton, Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks: Ali beat them all. He was a three-time heavyweight champion who defended his title nineteen times -- fewer than Joe Louis and Holmes, but far more than other heavyweights in this century. (Jack Dempsey made only five title defenses; Rocky Marciano, six.)
Ali first gained wide notice when, fighting as Cassius Clay, he won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. He turned pro the same year, and fought frequently, almost monthly, building a long list of decisive wins. But until he met Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964, Ali hadn't been truly tested. Except for the British champion Henry Cooper and the aging Archie Moore, most of Ali's early opponents had been journeyman stiffs, steps up the ladder to a championship fight.
Liston was imposingly different -- a sullen, enigmatic man whose tough-guy front masked a range of wounds and insecurities. An ex-con with an excellent punch and a menacing glare, Liston was, in effect, a taller Mike Tyson. His method was first to scare the wits out of his challengers and then flatten them. Just before fighting Ali, Liston had twice defended his title by twice bludgeoning Floyd Patterson to the canvas in the opening round. "Ever since the first Patterson fight," writes Remnick, Liston "had allowed himself to believe that he could climb in the ring and take off his robe, and the other man would drop for the ten-count."
Ali's early career and his two stunning defeats of Liston form the core of King of the World. As Remnick demonstrates, the young Cassius Clay was from the start an unusually disciplined athlete who decided to become a boxing champion while still a schoolboy in Louisville. Unlike Liston, Foreman, Tyson, and countless others, Clay didn't fit the mold of the troubled prizefighter whose decision to lace up the gloves saved him form years in the penitentiary. As an adolescent Ali was funny, shy, polite and -- like the current W.B.C. title-holder, Lennox Lewis -- the product of a fairly stable lower-middle-class household. Ali read the Bible, kept out of trouble, and was so conscious of his nutrition that, as Remnick relates, he not only swore off soda pop, but "carried around a bottle of water with garlic in it -- a solution he said, that would keep his blood pressure down and his health perfect." As a promising amateur, Cassius Clay won state and national Golden Gloves championships and enjoyed wide support in the Louisville community.
In many respects Ali was still very much a kid when, at twenty-two, he battled Liston for the first time. The fight had provoked wide publicity, for Ali had recently converted to Islam and aligned himself with the Black Muslim movement and its message of racial separation. More, he had begun to mug outrageously for the press rather in the manner of such pro-wrestling stars as the flamboyant Gorgeous George, a "Liberace in tights," as Remnick observes -- and, revealingly, another of Clay's early heroes.
But there was method in Ali's technique. As Ferdie Pacheco, his long-time physician, points out, "Ali became impossible for his opponents to gauge." In 1977, Earnie Shavers had Ali hurt and reeling against the ropes, but, Pacheco recalls, "held back because he thought Ali was kidding. People always thought he was crazy."
Predicting victory before the fight began, Ali turned his bout with Liston into a weird remake of Federico Fellini's 1954 film, La Strada. Under Ali's direction, Liston found himself playing Anthony Quinn's part, the gruff, aloof, seemingly invincible Strongman. Ali, meanwhile, assumed Richard Basehart's role. He was the Fool, disrupting press events with his cartoonish antics and loud mockeries of Liston's prison record and scant education. Long scorned in the press, Liston, writes Remnick, "resented being thought of as mobster's meat, a killer in trunks, boots, and gloves." Liston "demanded respect, the solemnity due a king." Ali utterly denied him this, calling him "chump" instead of "champ."
As he later would with Foreman, Ali cleverly made Liston wear himself out. Ali bobbed and weaved incessantly, easily slipping Liston's best shots. By the seventh round, Liston -- humbled and worn -- ended the fight by quitting on his stool. Ali, the new heavyweight champion, leapt exuberantly around the ring, jeering the many pressmen at ringside who had forecast Liston's quick and easy win. "Eat your words," Ali shouted. "I am the king! King of the world!"
A year later, Ali beat Liston again, even more breezily, knocking him to the canvas within minutes of the opening bell. Now, it was Ali who looked unbeatable. Between 1965 and 1967 -- when he was banned from boxing for refusing the draft -- Ali defeated all challengers, including Floyd Patterson, the former two-time champ who had publicly questioned the wisdom of Ali's religious conversion, and who -- in a letter to Sports Illustrated -- insisted that "the image of a Black Muslim as the world heavy-weight champion disgraces the sport and the nation."
Ali's continuing popularity owes much to his humor and generosity -- to the easy, patient way he mixed with the public and his friends. But against Patterson, Ali displayed his darker side -- what Remnick calls the "flashes of dismissive cruelty" that flared, not infrequently, in the early stages of his career. The smaller, lighter Patterson -- long dogged by self-doubts -- was outclassed from the start. But Ali mocked and beat him mercilessly for twelve rounds until the bout was stopped and Patterson, battered and barely conscious, was carted by his seconds from the ring. For his part, Ali, writes Remnick, found "his right was so sore" from pounding Patterson that "he accepted congratulations only with his left."
Remnick's account of Ali's early career is fairly complete but -- for serious boxing fans, at least -- not new. Remnick underplays the crucial role of the fighter's long-time trainer, Angelo Dundee, whose record of ring success is nearly as impressive as Ali's own. Dundee -- who also worked with such champions as Carmen Basilio and Willie Pastrano -- succeeded mostly by letting Ali be Ali. He didn't try to transform the fighter's unorthodox style, but he refined it in countless ways, building the foundation for Ali's continuing success.
Remnick is a skilled and lively writer; his previous books -- especially Lenin's Tomb, published in 1994 -- show a marked talent for dialogue, narration, and characterization. Certainly, with King of the World, Remnick has chosen his subject well. Arrogant and humble, gracious and rude, Ali remains an unfailingly fascinating character; he's "intricate," as Dundee once put it, as both a fighter and a man.
Remnick reveals Ali's distinguishing traits -- his drive, his moodiness, his narcissism -- as well as the factors that helped shape his character and public persona. Remnick's portraits of many of the supporting figures in the Ali drama are no less intriguing. Liston, certainly, hasn't been so fully portrayed since A. S. Young's oddly affecting Sonny Liston: The Champ Nobody Wanted, published in 1963.
Liston, as Remnick reveals, came to a particularly bleak end. Like his old friend Joe Louis, Liston washed up in Las Vegas, where he mingled with mobsters, and -- like Louis -- turned increasingly to drugs. Liston died broke and under suspicious circumstances in 1970 -- not long after embarking on yet another hopeless trek up the comeback trail. The more honorable and articulate Patterson took up various civic activities; in 1995, he was named New York's athletic commissioner. More recently, however, Patterson has shown signs of the sort of mental decline that now marks the lives of other veteran fighters, including Jerry Quarry and Wilfred Benitez. In one recent public appearance, Patterson revealed that he couldn't quite remember who he'd beaten to win his first heavyweight title. Sometimes, he admitted, he had trouble remembering names -- including his wife's.
Ali's neurological and fight-related deterioration is far better known. For more than a decade Ali's movements have grown increasingly labored; his words are slurred sometimes; his speech is slow. The late sports columnist Jim Murray once noted that rough and ruthless men like Jack Dempsey and Jake LaMotta were virtually born to be fighters; they "couldn't be anything but." Ali, Murray noted, "even though he may have been the best of all time, was miscast as a fighter. He paid the price." Ali, Murray suggested, "was right, he was too pretty to fight," and could well have excelled as "a point guard," or -- as Vince Lombardi also suggested -- "a tight end."
But Ali had no interest in other sports; football, he told the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, "was tooooo rough. You got to get hit in that game." It is perhaps true, as Murray has suggested, that Ali's career "was caked in tragedy." But, as Ali himself told Remnick, he has no regrets about his chosen profession. "A lesser man," Remnick writes, "could be forgiven some hours of darkness, for here is a performer who was robbed of what seemed to be his essence -- his physical beauty, his speed, his wit, his voice -- and yet Ali never betrays selfpity." "I know why this happened," Ali told Remnick. "God's showing me that I'm just a man like everyone else. Showing you, too."
Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Baltimore.