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LORD OF THE RING

David Remnick's Muhammad Ali

11:00 PM, Dec 13, 1998 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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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."