The King of the World: Muhammad Ali by David Remnick

It’s been somewhat remiss of Sporting Polemics not to have touched on the mighty Muhammad Ali, and his recent 70th birthday gave me the necessary prod. And I struck lucky. For all the mountains of literature on the great man, I stumbled across what is often considered the best of the best; David Remnick’s, King of the World. It’s not only cleverly constructed but it sets American boxing in the fuller social context of slavery and the subsequent rise of the civil rights movement of which Ali, despite his affiliations to the separatist Nation Of Islam, became an iconic figure then and still to this day.

The way Remnick weaves the story of Afro-American oppression at the hands of white racist America lifts the Ali story well beyond a sporting tale and into the realm of social history. Remnick’s perceptiveness with regards to the many strands of the civil rights movement including the tensions and eventual split of Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam makes this an historical text to go along side the Malcolm X autobiography. Remnick’s knowledge of the pre-Ali American boxing scene and its treacherous links to organised crime, along with the newspaper industry and the sporting hacks that leeched off the boxing world, do full justice to the Ali story, enriching our understanding of what made Cassius Marcellus Clay a contender for the greatest sportsman of the 20th century.

One of the great paradoxes of the Muhammad Ali story is that despite the loathing and contempt he received during his early fighting life, both as a successful black man, a devoted and outspoken member of the Nation of Islam, and of course, as a draft resister to the Vietnam War, despite all that loathing, he should come to be recognised today with such fondness, even such reverence, by whole swathes of American society. Remnick’s book doesn’t actually resolve that paradox but it does present it in superb dimension and detail. Just mull over this passage from the prologue to get a sense of what I mean:

As an athlete, he was supposed to remain aloof from the racial and political upheaval going on around him: the student sit-ins in Nashville in 1960, the Freedom Rides, the march on Washington, and the student protests in Albany, Georgia, and at Ole Miss. Clay not only responded to the upheaval, he responded in a way that outraged everyone from white racists to the leaders of the NAACP. He changed his religion and his name, he declared himself free of every mold and expectation. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. Nearly every American now thinks of Ali with misty affection Pxiii

Let us first go back to the beginning. The control the Mafia had on boxing in that era is legendary. If it were not for the physical and ideological power of the Nation of Islam, Cassius Clay would almost certainly have come under the mafia’s sway. And once in their grip there was no getting out. Remnick sums up the situation thus:

Boxing was a more limited target than organised crime, certainly, but still a fairly obvious one, splashy, hard to miss. The perfidy of the business was well known. A dirty game run entirely by mobsters, mainly Italian and Jewish mobsters. After the war there was not a single champion who was not, in some way, touched by the Mafia, if not wholly owned and operated by it. P46

It’s the details that Remnick provides that makes the case so convincing. Anyone can make a broad assertion that the mafia and boxing were inextricably linked but Remnick is able to put flesh on the bones. Picking up on one such mobster by the name of Frank Carbo, the following passage is bloodcurdling in its detail:

With violence and the threat of violence, Carbo muscled in on hundreds of fighters. He installed shadow managers and then took his piece of the action. If a fighter refused to go along, he had a hard time finding fights, much less title fights. The penalty for non-compliance was savage and inevitable. Ray Arcel, a well-known fight manager in his eighties, refused to deal exclusively with Carbo and was rewarded with a lead-pipe thrashing that almost killed him. Carbo left nothing to chance. He personally offered to gouge out the eyes of one West Coast promoter who resisted him. If he did not control both fighters in a match, he would dispatch an underling to bribe a judge and then bet accordingly. Rather than add up the fighters he controlled, a better exercise would be to find the few he did not. P62

Such was the all pervading environment of mafia intimidation that Clay, a promising young boxer, was immediately forced to recognise. The fact that he rose above, or at least circumnavigated this brutal corrupt world, is alone a claim for greatness in this most brutal of sports.

If Remnick is convincing on the role of the mafia he is even more convincing in his understanding of the all pervasive racism that every Afro American had to endure on a daily basis. It is easy to criticise Clay for linking up with the NOI but without an appreciation of the brutalities of white America, including the ongoing presence of the KKK and associated lynchings, no fair and balanced assessment of Clay can be made. The NOI offered the prospect of Black self reliance and separatism in the way that Booker T Washington and Marcus Garvey had done before, and this was highly appealing to many Black Americans who were daily being denied the prospect of integration. And with the eloquent, articulate Malcolm X as a recruiter, the NOI became a real alternative to the mainstream, turn the other cheek, civil rights movement. Remnick is at his very best when describing the choices open to Clay:

Like any black child of his generation, Cassius Clay learned quickly that if he strayed outside his neighbourhood to the white neighbourhood of Portland, he would hear calls of nigger and nigger go home. It did not require his father’s dinner-table speeches to make him race-conscious at an early age.. There were white stores and Negro stores, white parks and Negro parks. At most of the big movie theatres in town, like the Savoy, whites sat in the orchestra and blacks in the balcony…. the rest were for whites only. On public transport, blacks sat in the back, whites in the front. P86

Remnick goes on to note: Cassius was wounded by the accumulated slights of mid-century American apartheid: the slight of his mother being turned away for a drink of water at a luncheonette downtown, whites cutting in front of them in lines at the Kentucky State Fair as if by divine right, the sense of shame when his mother went across town to clean floors and toilets for white families. Clay used to say that from the age of ten he would lie in bed at night and cry as he wondered why his race had to suffer so. P87

It is this attention to detail that makes Remnick’s work come alive to the daily pain and cruelty of 20th century racist America. Set against this bleak and depressing landscape it was little wonder that Clay, soon to become Muhammed Ali, was attracted to the NOI. Remnick puts it cleanly: Something had resonated in his mind, something about the discipline and bearing of the Muslims, their sense of hierarchy, manhood, and self respect, the way they refused to smoke or drink or carouse, their racial pride. P127

One of the great unanswered questions about Muhammed Ali, well posed but only partially unanswered by Remnick, is whether Ali, by remaining loyal to the leadership of the NOI and failing to follow the lead of Malcolm X, can truly be considered a leading revolutionary figure in Black American history. Yes, Ali made the revolutionary decision to reject the Vietnam War and for that alone he deserves a giant place in American history. And by his comic and heroic antics in the ring he clearly put two fingers up at the white establishment. But to this day, Ali seems unable to go beyond the Black separatism of the NOI in the way that Malcolm X was able to do. There is no doubting the monumental influence of Ali in the 60’s and 70’s, but his acceptance today by America at large may be in part because in the end, despite his best endeavours, he has been co-opted into the status quo in the way that Malcolm X or the Black Panthers never were. Remnick attempts to sum up Ali’s historical legacy on a hugely positive note as well he should:

In the late sixties when he was making his stand against the draft and went into exile, many voices, radical and not, celebrated Ali as a figure of defiance and courage. Eldridge Cleaver described him as a genuine revolutionary and the first free black champion ever to confront white America.. But at the time, in 1964, very few people, black or white, openly celebrated Clay’s transformation. I remember in the early sixties how we felt at home about Ali, said the writer Jill Nelson, who grew up in Harlem and on the Upper West Side. We weren’t about to join the Nation, but we loved Ali for that supreme act of defiance. It was the defiance against having to be the good Negro, the good Christian waiting to be rewarded by the righteous white provider. We loved Ali because he was so beautiful and powerful and because he talked a lot of lip. But he also epitomised a lot of Black people’s emotions at the time, our anger, our sense of entitlement, the need to be better just to get to the median, the sense of standing up against the furies. P212

That’s a fair summation, I suspect, of Muhammed Ali’s towering position in 20th century American history. But Remnick does not leave it there and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t. The closing words of the chapter go not to Ali but to Malcolm X who, had he not been cut down by the NOI in cahoots with the FBI, might have provided a terrifying leadership of the oppressed and down-trodden that would have truly struck fear into the increasingly imperialist USA. Remnick knows his subject well and is determined to set it down for the record:

Malcolm X, for his part, showed no inclination to end his opposition to the pseudo-Islamic sect of Elijah Muhammad. Through his jailhouse discovery of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm had remade himself; he had gone from street hustler to national figure. But he was now reworking himself almost as radically as he had in the mid-fifties. He spoke out on the potential utility of a civil rights bill. He shook hands with Martin Luther King in a corridor of the US Senate. He began to link the struggle of American Blacks with those of Africans and other brothers of the Third World, and in that spirit, tried to start two new groups, Muslims Mosque Inc. and the Organisation of afro-American Unity. P218

Significantly, near the end of his life, Malcolm X was meeting with the likes of Nasser and Castro, and with friends like that it is little wonder that the FBI sanctioned, officially or otherwise, his elimination. So while Ali holds up the Olympic flame to universal acclaim, it is the political example of Malcolm X, tragically still only embryonic in its formulation, that still haunts white America. Now if Ali had followed his friend Malcolm X rather than Elijah Muhammad, who can tell how the Ali story might have ended. Probably in an early grave, but its interesting to speculate.

Remnick is still not done. Having presented the life of Muhammad Ali in a serious social and political context worthy of any established historian, he does not neglect to place boxing itself in its true historical context. In so doing Remnick has produced a text that should be recommended whenever the subject of boxing rears its bloody head. For make no mistake, boxing is a blood sport that sits awkwardly with any society that professes to civilised norms. Legalised violence for base titillation and profit. But Remnick spells it out far more eloquently than I:

Boxing in America was born of slavery. Like the Roman emperors who gathered at the Colosseum to watch their warring chattel, Southern plantation owners amused themselves by putting together their strongest slaves and letting them fight it out for sport and gambling. The slaves wore iron collars and often fought nearly to the point of death. Frederick Douglass objected to boxing and wrestling not merely because of the cruelty involved, but also because it muffled the spirit of insurrection. P221

And then, in a final tribute to the King of boxing and the master of ringside polemics, Remnick allows Ali the last word:

They stand around and say, Good fight boy; you’re a good boy; good going, They don’t look at fighters to have brains. They don’t look at fighters to be businessmen, or human, or intelligent. Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in a ring. The masters get two of us old black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet: My slave can whup your slave. That’s what I see when I see two black people fighting.

Yes indeed. A great sportsman, a great thinker and in his own inimitable way, a great revolutionary.

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