By L.S. Klepp
November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

B

When Tina Brown took over The New Yorker, the shift to gossipy, celebrity-infested copy appalled New Yorker traditionalists accustomed to the scrupulous, insular aura that prevailed during nearly four decades under William Shawn, even though Shawn himself had swept out the brisk, brittle, witty elan the magazine originally had under Harold Ross. Three months ago, amid a roaring blaze of publicity, Brown quit and was replaced by David Remnick. Concerned New Yorker readers, a nervous group to begin with, held their breath. What next?

If Remnick’s new book, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, offers any clue, Shawn’s legacy is about to be restored. Although Remnick, already known for the prize-winning Lenin’s Tomb, began writing for the magazine during Brown’s trendy, chatty regime, his book on Ali seems more in the spirit of those painstaking six-part series on sediments that Shawn liked to run. It’s meticulous, touching all the bases, sometimes more than once just to be sure. It’s full of lengthy but relevant digressions. It’s self-effacing, venturing into mild irony or tactful opinion only when the material begs for it. It’s intelligent, informed, enlightened. But it’s not at all provocative, eccentric, irreverent, or arresting in style — in other words, not at all like its subject, the former heavyweight boxing champ, or like the roster of eminent writers who’ve been drawn to boxing, from the jabbing English essayist William Hazlitt and the raffish Ross-era New Yorker reporter A.J. Liebling to Norman Mailer, whose own densely ruminative book on Ali is The Fight.

Remnick sees Ali as both a symbol and a catalyst of positive changes in American life. But he doesn’t flinch from Ali’s flaws and follies, many of them a result of swallowing the race-baiting mythology of the black-separatist Nation of Islam, which transformed him from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He divorced and insulted his first wife under pressure from the group and coldly dropped Malcolm X, who had befriended him at some risk, just as NOI members were predicting Malcolm’s demise.

The book doesn’t really explain Ali’s attraction to the Muslims, who were openly criticized by Martin Luther King Jr., Floyd Patterson, and Jackie Robinson, among others, but he probably saw in them something comparable to his own amazing self-confidence, his sense of fearless invincibility (he said he was scared just once in the ring, the first time he fought the baleful ex-con Sonny Liston). As analysis and narrative, the book has a truncated feel, breaking off Ali’s story before the epic battles with Frazier and Foreman in the ’70s, before his decline into mediocrity and later, after the beatings he took in his last fights, into Parkinson’s disease (these are touched on briefly in an epilogue).

It’s not surprising that boxing has fascinated so many writers. Two individuals alone in stark existential confrontation, their fates, their risings and fallings, made literal and visible. Remnick captures some of this elemental drama. But he’s best on background — Mafia intrigues, older journalists versus younger on Ali, racist reactions to black mastery of the sport. He likes Ali, not what Ali was good at: ”boxing, a sport designed to stun the brain, is finally indefensible.” It probably is, but that’s why it takes more than thoroughness to make something defensible and durable out of it. This isn’t a bad book about the most charismatic and controversial sports figure of our time, but it’s a bland one. B

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

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