LORD OF THE RING
David Remnick's Muhammad Ali
11:00 PM, Dec 13, 1998 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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.