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King of The World - TSI - The Sunday Indian
 
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LITERATURE

King of The World

 

When Cassius Clay burst onto the sports scene in the 1950s, he broke the mould. He changed the world of sports and went on to change the world itself: from his early fights as Cassius Clay, the young, wiry man from Louisville, unwilling to play the noble and grateful warrior in a white world, to becoming Muhammad Ali, the voice of black America. King of the World is the story of an incredible rise to power, a book of battles fought inside the ring and out. With grace and power, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Remnick tells of a transcendent athlete and entertainer, a rapper before rap was born...
TSI | Issue Dated: August 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : King of The World |
 

CASSIUS CLAY entered the ring in Miami Beach wearing a short white robe, “The Lip” stitched on the back. He was beautiful again. He was fast, sleek, and twenty-two. But, for the first and last time in his life, he was afraid. The ring was crowded with has-beens and would-bes, liege men and pugs. Clay ignored them. He began bouncing on the balls of his feet, shuffling joylessly at first, like a marathon dancer at ten to midnight, but then with more speed, more pleasure. After a few minutes, Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world, stepped through the ropes and onto the canvas, gingerly, like a man easing himself into a canoe. He wore a hooded robe. His eyes were unworried, and they were blank, the dead eyes of a man who’d never gotten a favor out of life and never given one out. He was not likely to give one to Cassius Clay.

Nearly every sportswriter in the Miami Convention Hall expected Clay to end the night on his back. The young boxing beat writer for The New York Times, Robert Lipsyte, got a call from his editors telling him to map out the route from the arena to the hospital, the better to know the way once Clay ended up there. The odds were seven to one against Clay, and it was almost impossible to find a bookie willing to take a bet. On the morning of the fight, the New York Post ran a column written by Jackie Gleason, the most popular television comedian in the country, that said, “I predict Sonny Liston will win in eighteen seconds of the first round, and my estimate include 9212009823 s the three seconds Blabber Mouth will bring into the ring with him.” Even Clay’s financial backers, the Louisville Sponsoring Group, expected disaster; the group’s lawyer, Gordon Davidson, negotiated hard with Liston’s team, assuming that this could be the young man’s last night in the ring. Davidson hoped only that Clay would emerge “alive and unhurt.”

It was the night of February 25, 1964. Malcolm X, Clay’s guest and mentor, was at ringside, in seat number seven. Jackie Gleason and Sammy Davis were there, and so were the mobsters from Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York. A cloud of cigar smoke drifted through the ring lights. Cassius Clay threw punches into the gray floating haze and waited for the bell.

“SEE THAT? SEE ME?”

Muhammad Ali sat in an overstuffed chair watching himself on the television screen. The voice came in a swallowed whisper and his finger waggled as it pointed toward his younger self, his self preserved on videotape: twenty-two years old, getting warm in his corner, his gloved hands dangling at his hips. Ali lives in a farmhouse in southern Michigan. The rumor has always been that Al Capone owned the farm in the twenties. One of Ali’s dearest friends, his cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown, had once searched the property hoping to find Capone’s buried treasure. In 1987, while living in a cheap motel on Olympia Avenue in Los Angeles, Bundini fell down a flight of stairs. A maid finally found him, paralyzed, on the floor; he died three weeks later.

Now Ali was whispering again, “See me? You see me?” And there he was, surrounded by his trainer, Angelo Dundee, and Bundini, moon-faced and young and whispering hoodoo inspiration in Ali’s ears: “All night! All night! Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble!”

“That’s the only time I was ever scared in the ring,” Ali said. “Sonny Liston. First time. First round. Said he was gonna kill me.”

Ali was heavy now. He had the athlete’s disdain for exercise and ate more than was good for him. His beard was gray and his hair was going gray, too. I’d come up to Michigan to see him because I wanted to write about the way he’d created himself in the early sixties, the way a gangly kid from Louisville managed to become one of the most electric of American characters, a molder of his age and a reflection of it. As Cassius Clay, he entered the world of professional boxing at a time when the expectation was that a black fighter would behave himself with absolute deference to white sensibilities, that he would play the noble and grateful warrior in the world of southern Jim Crow and northern hypocrisy. 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 year he won a gold medal in Rome), the Freedom Rides, the march on Washington, and the student protests in Albany, Georgia, and at Ole Miss (as he was making his way up the heavyweight ladder). Clay not only responded to the upheaval, he responded in a way that outraged everyone from white racists to the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 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—paradoxically, he was a warrior who came to symbolize love—but that transformation in the popular mind came long after Ali’s period of self-creation in the early sixties, the period covered in this story.

Ali and I talked that afternoon about the three leading heavyweights of the time—Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, and Clay himself—and the uncanny way they seemed to mark the political and racial changes going on just as they were fighting one another for the title. In the early sixties, Patterson cast himself as the Good Negro, an approachable and strangely fearful man, a deferential champion of civil rights, integration, and Christian decency. Liston, a veteran of the penitentiary before he came to the ring, accepted the role of the Bad Negro as his lot after he discovered that he would not be permitted any other. For most sportswriters, Liston was monstrous, inexplicable, a Bigger Thomas, a Caliban beyond their reckoning. So this story begins with Patterson and Liston, their lives and their two quick and dramatic fights in 1962 and 1963. Each man, in his own way, represented the world that Ali would encounter and then transcend. Ali would declare himself independent of the stereotypes Patterson was beholden to; he became independent of the mobsters who, for years, had dominated boxing in general and Liston in particular.

“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man,” Ali told me. “I had to show that to the world.”

At times, Ali was taken with the subject of himself, but sometimes his heavy lids would blink a few times and then stay shut and he would sleep, mid-conversation, for five, ten minutes or so. He used to do that when he was young. Now he did it a lot more often. Sometimes the present world, the life going on all around—the awards dinners, the championship games, the visits to the king of Morocco or the aldermen of Chicago—sometimes it all bored him. He thought about death all the time now, he said. “Do good deeds. Visit hospitals. Judgment Day coming. Wake up and it’s Judgment Day.” Ali prayed five times a day, always with death in mind. “Thinking about after. Thinking about paradise.”

The fight began. In black and white, Cassius Clay came bounding out of his corner and right away started circling the square, dancing, moving around and around the ring, moving in and out, his head twitching side to side, as if freeing himself from a neck crick early in the morning, easy and fluid—and then Liston, a great bull whose shoulders seemed to cut off access to half the ring, lunged with a left jab. Liston missed by two feet. At that moment, Clay hinted not only at what was to come that night in Miami, but at what he was about to introduce to boxing and to sports in general—the marriage of mass and velocity. A big man no longer had to lumber along and slug, he could punch like a heavyweight and move like Ray Robinson.

“It’s sweet, isn’t it?”

Ali smiled. With great effort, he smiled. Parkinson’s is a disease of the nervous system that stiffens the muscles and freezes the face into a stolid mask. Motor control degenerates. Speech degenerates. Some people hallucinate or suffer nightmares. As the disease progresses, even swallowing can become a terrible trial. Parkinson’s comes on the victim erratically. Ali still walked well. He was still powerful in the arms and across the chest; it was obvious, just from shaking his hand, that he still possessed a knockout punch. No, for him the special torture was speech and expression, as if the disease had intended to strike first at what had once pleased him, and pleased (or annoyed) the world, most. He hated the effort that speech now cost him. (“Sometimes you won’t understand me,” he said when we first met. “But that’s okay. I’ll say it again.”) He rarely risked a word in front of a camera. And usually it was an enormous effort to show a smile. I said I knew what he was talking about. My father has Parkinson’s. He can no longer walk more than a few steps, and his speech, depending on the time of day, can be a trial. So I knew. What I couldn’t tell him was that my father is over seventy. His speech is better than Ali’s. But my father had not spent decades getting hit hundreds, thousands of times, by the best heavyweight fighters of his era.

Ali was smiling now as his younger self, Cassius Clay, flicked a nasty left jab into Liston’s brow.

“You watchin’ this? Sooo fast! Sooo pretty!”

Liston seemed hurt and confused. He had no answer to this new species of athlete.

Ali’s fourth wife, Lonnie, came up the stairs and put her hand on Ali’s shoulder. She is a sturdy and handsome woman with a face full of freckles. Lonnie is fifteen years younger than Ali. She grew up near the Clay family in Louisville’s West End. She went to Vanderbilt and used to work as a sales rep for Kraft in Los Angeles. When Ali’s third marriage, to Veronica Porsche, was on its way out, he called her to come be with him. Eventually, Ali and Lonnie married. Lonnie is precisely what Ali needs. She is smart, calm, and loving, and she does not treat Ali like her patient. Besides Ali’s closest friend, the photographer Howard Bingham, Lonnie is probably the one person in his life who has given more than she has taken. In Michigan, Lonnie runs the household and the farm, and when they are on the road, which is more than half the time, she keeps watch over Ali, making sure he has rested enough and taken his medicine. She knows his moods and habits, what he can do and what he can’t. She knows when he is suffering and when he is hiding behind his symptoms to zone out of another event that bores him.

Ali didn’t look up from the television. He reached out and rested his hand on the small of Lonnie’s back.

“Muhammad, you’ve got to sign a couple of pictures, okay?” Lonnie said. She put a couple of eight-by-ten glossies in front of him. Cassius Clay was dancing around the ring, stopping only to needle a tattoo on the meat of Sonny Liston’s face.

(Reprinted with permission from Picador)

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017