Magazine article The Spectator

Cassius the Defiant Gladiator

Magazine article The Spectator

Cassius the Defiant Gladiator

Article excerpt

Lucy Hughes-Hallett KING OF THE WORLD:

MUHAMMAD ALI AND THE RISE OF AN AMERICAN HERO by David Remnick Picador, 14.99, pp. 326

In his prime Muhammad Ali was everything he claimed to be - the fastest, the greatest, the prettiest. As his doctor said, 'If someone came from another planet and said "Give us your best specimen" you'd give him Ali.' He was also, as David Remnick demonstrates in this historically sophisticated and splendidly entertaining book, an artist whose masterpiece was his own image, the auteur and star of a theatrically compelling, politically cogent spectacle. The US army twice classified him as being too stupid to serve, but in Remnick's view in 1962, when he first turned professional, he was 'the most self-aware 21-yearold in the country'.

He used that awareness in his fights and in the psychodramas which preceded and surrounded them. Remnick gives a riveting account of the weigh-in before his first fight against Sonny Liston, when Cassius Clay, as he then was, acted so mad, bad and dangerous that even his own team were unsure that he hadn't lost his sanity until they checked his blood pressure afterwards and realised how coolly he had planned the performance. He was equally astute, and equally audacious, in the way he responded to historical change and turned it to his own purposes. As he told Remnick, 'I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man.'

His two immediate predecessors as world heavyweight champion each represented one of the old kinds. It's not until nearly a third of the way through this book that Ali, as it were, enters the ring. The extended first section builds up to and describes the fight between Sonny Liston, the 'Bad Nigger', and Floyd Patterson, the 'Good' one. Liston was an illiterate criminal who was managed, like the majority of fighters at the time, by the Mafia. To the poet LeRoi Jones (and to nearly everyone else) he was 'the big black Negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in'. Patterson, on the other hand, anxious and conciliatory, was the servile loser everybody liked. In describing them and their careers, and in particular their representation by the press, Remnick shows vividly in what kind of world a new contender had to operate.

As a boy Cassius Marcellus Clay was proud of his name. …

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