There had been mythic sports figures before Cassius Clay, but when he burst upon the sports scene in the 1950s, he broke the mold. Those were the years when boxing and boxers were at the mercy of the mob and the whim of the sportswriters. If you wanted a shot at a title, you did it their way. Young Clay did it his way - with little more than an Olympic gold medal to his credit, he danced into Sonny Liston's baleful view and provoked the terrifying champ into accepting him as his next challenger. The rest is history. Muhammad Ali has become a mythic hero, an American icon, and a self-invented legend. As both a mirror and a molder of his times, Ali became the most recognizable face on the planet, a key figure in the cultural battles of the times. This is the story of his self-creation and his rise to glory, told by a master storyteller.
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"It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up." -- Muhammad Ali
Pre-Review Smack Talk:
I will review this sucker tomorrow. David Remnick better quake. I'm coming for this book. I read it from cover to cover. I know the words better than Remnick could hope to ever know it. Of course he wrote it, because the words ran from him. I know Remick's words better than his mamma knows him.
Tomorrow. Yes. I'll give this book till tomorrow. And then I'm coming. I'm coming with a pen. I'm coming with poetry. I'm coming with the majesty of Muhammad Ali. The G.O.A.T.. The Greatest. The man who fought a nation. The man who fought for a people. A pretty man. So pretty. He was a butterfly that Nabokov couldn't catch or pin. Tomorrow I will take on this book and take my piece in three rounds. But the Man and the book will have to wait for tomorrow. Tonight I've got a bed to contend with. And I'm the greatest sleeper of all time.
I read the hardback version of Remnick's book, which was 306 pages (326 with acknowledgement, sources, and index). My edition was a 4th printing, 1st Edition from 1998. I also had the Audible/audio version which I debated about listening to because it was abridged and I really hate abridged books (in any format). No. Hate is far too simple a word. I despise abridgments. I abhor them. I abase and disdain them. It is a lazy and cheap way to do an audio-recording and all you end up with is an ugly, deformed homunculus of the original. Go all the way or go home David.
I mean for GOD's sake Remnick. Why would you let people abridge the audio version? Your audio choice was just stupid. It was a 6-hour abridgment which usually translates into cutting 1/3 to 1/2 of this book. So, I ended up listening while I did work around the house and at points where it jumped, I'd rn over to the book and read the gaps. Seriously. I had to read the gaps because you couldn't pay for Dick Hill to read the whole thing or Brilliance Audio thought it was only going to sell if you cut it from 12 hours to 6? Stupid. Reckless. Chump. IT wasn't like this was some William T. Vollmann 3000+ word book on Violence. This was a 300 page book on Muhammad Ali. The Greatest. Do you not respect yourself or do you not resect Ali? Or did you just let the producers talk you down?
And yes Remnick, I know you are the editor of the New Yorker, but really man. Besides a nice bio of Obama and your Russia books, what have you done for me lately? Get out there and write something more. Or hell, don't write. Just stop cutting. Stop leaving the bloody body of your own work on the audio floor.
Round 1: Poem by Ali
Clay comes out to meet Liston And Liston starts to retreat If Liston goes back an inch farther He'll end up in a ringside seat. Clay swings with his left, Clay swings with his right, Look at young Cassius Carry the fight. Liston keeps backing But there's not enough room It's a matter of time Till Clay lowers the boom. Now Clay lands with a right, What a beautiful swing, And the punch raises the Bear Clean out of the ring. Liston is still rising And the ref wears a frown, For he can't start counting, Till Sonny goes down. Now Liston is disappearing from view. The crowd is going frantic, But radar stations have picked him up Somewhere over the Atlantic. Who would have thought When they came to the fight? That they'd witness the launching Of a human satellite. Yes the crowd did not dream When they put up the money That they would see A total eclipse of the Sonny! I am the greatest!
Round 2: The Greatest!
The book does a nice job of painting a broad picture of Muhammad Ali (and young Cassius Clay) while focusing primarily on the Liston - Clay fight that made him famous. It touches on a lot of the major points of Clay's life: Growing up in Kentucky, Finding Boxing, High School, the Olympics, The Louisville Syndicate, First Fights, the Liston Fight #1 (FL), the Liston Fight #2 (ME), the Nation of Islam, the Women of Ali (or the Pelvic Missionary) Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, Floyd Patterson, Later Years, Parkinson's Disease.
Some of these were new things, but many were just told well and told with details that were both surprising and intimate. I loved the whole early relationship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. It is hard to walk away from this type of book without loving the subject a bit more, no matter where you started from.
Round 3: The Knock-out
The end of the book was sad and beautiful. Remnick talking with an Ali that is saddled with age and disease. The Man, however, is also at peace. Remnick does a good job of exploring not just the limits of boxing, but the largeness of man:
There is a beauty in it--there is terrible beauty in battle, too, particularly for the noncombatant--but if you meet enough former boxers, if you try to decipher their punch-drunk talk, you begin to wonder. What beauty is worth this?
Ali is an American myth who has come to mean many things to many people: a symbol of faith, a symbol of conviction and defiance, a symbol of beauty and skill and courage, a symbol of racial pride, of wit and love. Ali's physical condition is shocking not least because it is an accelerated form of what we all fear, the progression of aging , the unpredictability and danger of life. In Ali we see the frailty even of a man whose job it was to be the most fearsome figure on the globe.
Asked how he would like to be remembered Muhammad Ali once remarked:
"I'll tell you how I'd like to be remembered: as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up at him and who helped as many of his people as he could--financial and also in their fight for freedom, justice, and equality. As a man who wouldn't embarrass them. As a man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam that he found when he listened to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And if all that's asking too much, then I'd guess I'd settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn't even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was."