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Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

Written by David RemnickAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Remnick

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On Sale: April 02, 2014
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-8041-7362-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

"Succeeds more than any previous book in bringing Ali into focus . . . as a starburst of energy, ego and ability whose like will never be seen again." —The Wall Street Journal

"Best Nonfiction Book of the Year" —Time

"Penetrating . . . reveal[s] details that even close followers of [Ali] might not have known. . . . An amazing story." —The New York Times

On the night in 1964 that Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) stepped into the ring with Sonny Liston, he was widely regarded as an irritating freak who danced and talked way too much. Six rounds later Ali was not only the new world heavyweight boxing champion: He was "a new kind of black man" who would shortly transform America's racial politics, its popular culture, and its notions of heroism.
        
No one has captured Ali--and the era that he exhilarated and sometimes infuriated--with greater vibrancy, drama, and astuteness than David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lenin's Tomb (and editor of The New Yorker). In charting Ali's rise from the gyms of Louisville, Kentucky, to his epochal fights against Liston and Floyd Patterson, Remnick creates a canvas of unparalleled richness. He gives us empathetic portraits of wisecracking sportswriters and bone-breaking mobsters; of the baleful Liston and the haunted Patterson; of an audacious Norman Mailer and an enigmatic Malcolm X. Most of all, King of the World does justice to the speed, grace, courage, humor, and ebullience of one of the greatest athletes and irresistibly dynamic personalities of our time.

"Nearly pulse-pounding narrative power . . . an important account of a period in American social history." —Chicago Tribune

"A pleasure . . . haunting . . . so vivid that one can imagine Ali saying, 'How'd you get inside my head, boy?'" —Wilfrid Sheed, Time

Excerpt

HYPE

The promoter of the Liston-Clay fight was William B. MacDonald, a former bus conductor who had made so great a fortune that he now got around in two Rolls-Royces and a fifty-foot cruiser named Snoozie. MacDonald was born in Butte in 1908, the descendant, he said, of generations of sheep thieves. There being few sheep to steal in Butte, he came to Miami and made his money in the parking business, then in laundry and dry cleaning, then in restaurant management, trucking, mobile homes, and a mortgage company based in San Juan. He married a Polish woman named Victoria and, just for fun, bought a stud farm in Delray Beach and a Class D baseball team called the Tampa Tarpons. MacDonald handed out gold cuff links like Chiclets. He lived in a quarter-million-dollar house in Bal Harbour and retained an assistant named Sugar Vallone, late of the bartending trade. His generosity as a father was unparalleled. He built his daughter a tree house with drapes and carpeting matching the main house, and for his daughter's eighth birthday he installed a jukebox in the tree. Bill MacDonald had a good time. He smoked his cigars and ate his steaks. He played golf and decorated his walls with the many marlin he had pulled out of the Atlantic. On the golf course, driving his cart, he held a Coke in his right hand and a root beer in his left, and steered with his forearms and his belly. He was very fat.

MacDonald had enjoyed his experience so far in the boxing business. He made some money, if not a lot, promoting the third Patterson-Johansson fight. When he first talked to Chris Dundee about a Liston-Clay title bout, it seemed a no-lose proposition. There was money to be made, what with all the big-money tourists and the winter crowds in Miami in February. How could it flop? Liston was already the most fearsome presence in boxing since Louis and Marciano, and Clay, with his mouth flapping, would sell as many tickets as the Miami fire laws would permit. No lose. And so MacDonald, who had $800,000 invested in the fight, serenely pegged the top ticket at an unprecedented $250.

MacDonald envisioned a great night, the ring surrounded by movie people and all the usual hustlers, the big-roll guys. He wanted all the big faces up close. "A guy calls me, for instance, wants to buy a hundred-dollar seat for Andy Williams," he told a reporter for Sports Illustrated. "I tell him Andy Williams's got to be up there with the big kids. I can't imagine him sitting back there with the little kids. He's got to be in there with the wheels, not the hubcaps."

Although MacDonald was not exactly expert in boxing, he was smart enough to tell the writers he was acutely aware of the possibility of surprise in the fight. "I figure Clay to win it," he said. "He'll take the title if he stays away, jabs and runs, but the little jerk is so egotistical--he's getting hysterical--he thinks he can punch Liston's nose sideways. It's liable to be a stinky fight to watch, but if Clay gets by seven or eight he's likely to win it." One could appreciate the sentiment if not the subtlety of MacDonald's maneuver. You don't sell tickets when David has no shot at Goliath.

MacDonald did not expect Liston to get into a verbal war with Clay before the fight. Liston had become so accustomed to hearing about himself as the indomitable champion, a seven-to-one favorite at the minimum, that he trained at the Surfside Civic Auditorium in North Miami Beach with a smug air of business as usual. In contrast to Clay's gloriously dismal surroundings at the Fifth Street Gym, Liston sparred with air-conditioning. An announcer would intone the next station of the cross--"The champion at the heavy bag"--and Liston would pound away for a short while. Then his cornermen, led by Willie Reddish, would rush to him and towel him off as if he were Cleopatra. Reddish would wing a medicine ball at Liston's gut a dozen times and then Liston would skip rope to "Night Train," as he had on The Ed Sullivan Show.

"Note that the champion's heels never touch the board," the master of ceremonies announced. "He does all this off his toes."
Liston trained the way Liberace played piano; it was a garish representation of a boxer at work. If Liston was taking Clay at all seriously, it was very hard to tell. He would not even deign to pretend to loathe his challenger. "I don't hate Cassius Clay," he said. "I love him so much I'm giving him twenty-two and a half percent of the gate. Clay means a lot to me. He's my baby, my million-dollar baby. I hope he keeps well and I sure hope he shows up." Liston's only health concern, he allowed, was for the destiny of his vaunted left fist: "It's gonna go so far down his throat, it'll take a week for me to pull it out again."

The columnists may not have liked Liston, but they respected him as a fighter. They figured him an easy winner over Clay. Lester Bromberg of the New York World-Telegram said the fight would "follow the pattern" of the two Liston-Patterson fights, the only difference being that this would last longer: "It will last almost the entire first round." Nearly all the columnists were middle-aged, raised on Joe Louis, and they were inclined to like Clay even less than Liston. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times predicted that the Liston-Clay matchup would be "the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin--180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout. The only thing at which Clay can beat Liston is reading the dictionary. . . . His public utterances have all the modesty of a German ultimatum to Poland but his public performances run more to Mussolini's navy."

At the Fifth Street Gym, of course, Clay was exerting considerable energy in his post-training-session press conferences. Day after day he described how he would spend the first five rounds circling "the big ugly bear," tiring him out, and then tear him apart with hooks and uppercuts until finally Liston would drop to all fours in submission. "I'm gonna put that ugly bear on the floor, and after the fight I'm gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. Liston even smells like a bear. I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him. People think I'm joking. I'm not joking. I'm serious. This will be the easiest fight of my life." He told the visiting reporters that now was their chance to "jump on the bandwagon." He was taking names, he said, keeping track of all the naysayers, and when he won "I'm going to have a little ceremony and some eating is going on--eating of words." Day after day he would replay his homage to Gorgeous George when describing what he'd do in case of a Liston win: "You tell this to your camera, your newspaper, your TV man, your radio man, you tell this to the world: If Sonny Liston whups me, I'll kiss his feet in the ring, crawl out of the ring on my knees, tell him he's the greatest, and catch the next jet out of the country." Most spectacularly, he composed in honor of the occasion what was surely his best poem. Over the years, Clay would farm out some of his poetical work. "We all wrote lines here and there," Dundee said. But this one was all Clay. Ostensibly, it was a prophetic vision of the eighth round, and no poem, before or after, could beat it for narrative drive, precise scansion, and wit. It was his "Song of Myself":

Clay comes out to meet Liston
And Liston starts to retreat
If Liston goes back any further
He'll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with a left,
Clay swings with a right,
Look at young Cassius
Carry the fight.
Liston keeps backing
But there's not enough room
It's a matter of time.
There, Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay swings with a right,
What a beautiful swing,
And the punch raises the bear,
Clear out of the ring.
Liston is still rising
And the ref wears a frown,
For he can't start counting,
Till Sonny comes down.
Now Liston disappears from view.
The crowd is getting frantic,
But our radar stations have picked him up
He's 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 laid down their money
That they would see
A total eclipse of the Sonny!
I am the greatest!

Nearly all the writers regarded Clay's bombast, in prose and verse, as the ravings of a lunatic. But not only did Clay have a sense of how to fill a reporter's notebook and, thus, a promoter's arena, he had a sense of self. The truth (and it was a truth he shared with almost no one) was that Cassius Clay knew that for all his ability, for all his speed and cunning, he had never met a fighter like Sonny Liston. In Liston, he was up against a man who did not merely beat his opponents, but hurt them, damage them, shame them in humiliatingly fast knockouts. Liston could put a man away with his jab; he was not much for dancing, but then neither was Joe Louis. Liston was the prototype of what a heavyweight champion should be: he threw bomb after unforgiving bomb. When he hit a man in the solar plexus the glove seemed lost up to the cuff; he was too powerful to grab and clinch; nothing hurt him. Clay was too smart, he had watched too many films, not to know that. "That's why I always knew that all of Clay's bragging was a way to convince himself that he could do what he said he'd do," Floyd Patterson told me many years later. "I never liked all his bragging. It took me a long time to understand who Clay was talking to. Clay was talking to Clay."

Very few people would ever know how true that was and how much Clay feared Liston. One evening, just before signing the contracts for the fight, he visited Sports Illustrated's offices on the twentieth floor of the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan. It was seven-thirty and Clay stood at the window looking out at the lights blinking along Sixth Avenue and beyond. He was quiet for a long time.

Finally, the writer Mort Sharnik said, "Cassius, all these things you're saying about Liston, do you really mean them? Do you really think you're going to beat this guy?"
"I'm Christopher Columbus," he said slowly. "I believe I'll win. I've never been in there with him, but I believe the world is round and they all believe the world is flat. Maybe I'll fall off the world at the horizon but I believe the world is round."
Clay had doubts, but he used those doubts the way a black belt in judo uses the weight of his assailant. Weeks before the fight, he approached Liston's manager, Jack Nilon, and said, "You know, I shot my mouth off to make this fight a success. My day of reckoning is about to come. If the worst happens I want to get out of there quick. I'd like to provision my bus and get out of there quick." Then he asked Jack Nilon for ten thousand dollars for the provisioning.

"No one could read this kid," Sharnik would say. "It was hard to know if he was the craziest kid you ever saw or the smartest."
Bill MacDonald never hoped to convince the public that Clay was a modest fellow in the Louis mold, but he had hoped that the writers would think he could fight. They did not. According to one poll, 93 percent of the writers accredited to cover the fight predicted Liston would win. What the poll did not register was the firmness of the predictions. Arthur Daley, the New York Times columnist, seemed to object morally to the fight, as if the bout were a terrible crime against children and puppies: "The loudmouth from Louisville is likely to have a lot of vainglorious boasts jammed down his throat by a hamlike fist belonging to Sonny Liston. . . ."



In the later acts of his career, Muhammad Ali would take his place in the television firmament and his Boswell would be Howard Cosell. But in the days preceding his fight with Sonny Liston in Miami, Cassius Clay was not yet Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell was a bald, nasal guy on the radio who annoyed his colleagues with his portentous questions and his bulky tape recorder, which he was forever bashing into someone's giblets. Newspapers were still the dominant force in sports; columnists--white columnists--were the dominant voices; and Jimmy Cannon, late of the New York Post and, since 1959, of the New York Journal-American, was the king of the columnists. Cannon was the first thousand-dollar-a-week man, Hemingway's favorite, Joe DiMaggio's buddy, and Joe Louis's iconographer. Red Smith, who wrote for the Herald Tribune, employed an elegant restraint in his prose that put him ahead of the game with more high-minded readers, but Cannon was the popular favorite: a world-weary voice of the city. Cannon was king, and Cannon had no sympathy for Cassius Clay. He did not even think he could fight.

One afternoon shortly before the fight, Cannon was sitting with George Plimpton at the Fifth Street Gym watching Clay spar. Clay glided around the ring, a feather in the slipstream, and every so often he popped a jab into his sparring partner's face. Plimpton was completely taken with Clay's movement, his ease, but Cannon could not bear to watch.

"Look at that!" Cannon said. "I mean, that's terrible. He can't get away with that. Not possibly." It was just unthinkable that Clay could beat Liston by running, carrying his hands at his hips, and defending himself simply by leaning away.

"Perhaps his speed will make up for it," Plimpton put in hopefully.
"He's the fifth Beatle," Cannon said. "Except that's not right. The Beatles have no hokum to them."
"It's a good name," Plimpton said. "The fifth Beatle."
"Not accurate," Cannon said. "He's all pretense and gas, that fellow. . . . No honesty."

Clay offended Cannon's sense of rightness the way flying machines offended his father's generation. It threw his universe off kilter.
"In a way, Clay is a freak," he wrote before the fight. "He is a bantamweight who weighs more than two hundred pounds."
Cannon's objections went beyond the ring. His hero was Joe Louis, and for Joe Louis he composed the immortal line that he was a "credit to his race--the human race." He admired Louis's "barbaric majesty," his quiet in suffering, his silent satisfaction in victory. And when Louis finally went on too long and, way past his peak, fought Rocky Marciano, he eulogized the broken-down old fighter as the metaphysical poets would a slain mistress: "The heart, beating inside the body like a fierce bird, blinded and caged, seemed incapable of moving the cold blood through the arteries of Joe Louis's rebellious body. His thirty-seven years were a disease which paralyzed him."

Cannon was born in 1910 in what he called "the unfreaky part of Greenwich Village." His father was a minor, if kindly, servant of Tammany Hall. The family lived in cold-water flats in the Village, and Cannon got to know the neighborhood and its workmen, the icemen, the coal delivery boys. Cannon dropped out of school after the ninth grade and caught on as a copy boy at the Daily News and never left the newspaper business. As a young reporter he caught the eye of Damon Runyon when he wrote dispatches on the Lindbergh kidnapping trial for the International News Service.

"The best way to be a bum and earn a living is to write sports," Runyon told Cannon and then helped him get a job at a Hearst paper, The New York American. Like his heroes, Runyon and the Broadway columnist Mark Hellinger, Cannon gravitated to the world of the "delicatessen nobility," to the bookmakers and touts, the horse players and talent agents, who hung out at Toots Shor's and Lindy's, the Stork Club and El Morocco. When Cannon went off to Europe to write battle dispatches for The Stars and Stripes, he developed what would become his signature style: florid, sentimental prose with an underpinning of hard-bitten wisdom, an urban style that he had picked up in candy stores and nightclubs and from Runyon, Ben Hecht, and Westbrook Pegler. After having been attached to George Patton's Third Army, Cannon came home newly attached to the Post. His sports column, which would be the city's most popular for a quarter century, began in 1946 and was dubbed "Jimmy Cannon Says."

Cannon was an obsessive worker, a former boozer who drank more coffee than Balzac. He lived alone--first at the Edison Hotel, then on Central Park West, and finally on Fifty-fifth Street. He was a cranky egomaniac whose ego only grew with age. He sweated every column. When he wasn't at a ball game or at his desk, he was out all night, wandering from nightclub to nightclub, listening always for tips, for stray bits of talk that could make their way into his column. "His column is his whole life," said one of his colleagues, W. C. Heinz of the New York Sun. "He has no family, no games he plays, no other activities. When he writes it's the concentration of his whole being. He goes through the emotional wringer. I have no idea what Jimmy would do if he weren't writing that column, he'd be so lonesome."

For his time, Cannon was considered enlightened on the subject of race. That is to say that unlike many other columnists he did not make fun of the black athletes he covered, he did not transform their speech into Amos 'n' Andy routines. He gave them their due. As much as he adored DiMaggio, a fighter like Archie Moore captured his schmaltz-clogged heart just as easily:

"Someone should write a song about Archie Moore who in the Polo Grounds knocked out Bobo Olson in three rounds. I don't mean big composers such as Harold Arlen or Duke Ellington. It should be a song that comes out of the backroom of sloughed saloons on night-drowned streets in morning-worried parts of bad towns. The guy who writes this one must be a piano player who can be dignified when he picks a quarter out of the marsh of a sawdust floor. They're dead, most of those piano players, their mouths full of dust instead of songs. But I'll bet Archie could dig one up in any town he ever made."  Cannon was also a master of the barstool non sequitur. Very often he would title his column "Nobody Asked Me, But . . ." and then line up a few dozen choice thoughts:

"I have more faith in brusque doctors than oily-mannered ones."
"You're middle-aged if you remember Larry Semon, the comic."
"El Morocco is still the most exciting nightclub in the country."
"Doesn't Marty Glickman, the sports announcer, sound like an Atlantic City boardwalk auctioneer?"
"Guys who use other people's coffee saucers as ashtrays should be banned from public places. . . ."
He would begin other columns by putting the reader inside the skull and uniform of a ballplayer ("You're Eddie Stanky. You ran slower than the other guy . . ."), and elsewhere, in that voice of El Morocco at three in the morning, he would dispense wisdom on the subject he seemed to know the least about--women: "Any man is in difficulty if he falls in love with a woman he can't knock down with the first punch." Or, "You can tell when a broad starts in managing a fighter. What makes a dumb broad smart all of a sudden? They don't even let broads in a joint like Yale. But they're all wised up once a fighter starts making a few."

There are not many writers of any sort who do not date quickly, and journalistic writing, with rare exceptions, dates as quickly as the newsprint it's written on. Even some of Mencken dates, and Cannon was no Mencken. The wised-up one-liners and the world-weary sentiment were of a time and a place, and as Cannon aged he gruffly resisted the new trends in sportswriting and athletic behavior. In the press box, he encountered a new generation of beat writers and columnists, men such as Maury Allen and Leonard Schecter on the Post. He didn't much like the sound of them. Cannon called the younger men "Chipmunks" because they were always chattering away in the press box. He hated their impudence, their irreverence, their striving to get outside the game and into the heads of the people they covered. Cannon had always said that his intention as a sportswriter was to bring the "world in over the bleacher wall," but he failed to see that this generation was trying to do much the same thing. He could not bear their lack of respect for the old verities. "They go up and challenge guys with rude questions," Cannon once said of the Chipmunks. "They think they're big if they walk up to an athlete and insult him with a question. They regard this as a sort of bravery."

Part of Cannon's anxiety was sheer competitiveness. There were seven newspapers in those days in New York, and there was terrific competition to stay on top, to be original, to get a scoop, an extra detail. But the Chipmunks knew they were in competition now not so much with one another as with the growing power of television. Unlike Cannon, who was almost entirely self-educated, these were young men (and they were all men) who had gone to college in the age of Freud. They became interested in the psychology of an athlete ("The Hidden Fears of Kenny Sears" was one of Milton Gross's longer pieces). In time, this, too, would no longer seem especially voguish--soon just about every schnook with a microphone would be asking the day's goat, "What were you thinking when you missed that ball?"--but for the moment, the Chipmunks were the coming wave and Cannon's purple sentences, once so pleasurable, were beginning to feel less vibrant, a little antique.

Part of Cannon's generational anxiety was that he wrote about ballplayers in an elegiac voice. He had plenty of scorn for the scoundrels of sport--Jim Norris, Frankie Carbo, Fat Tony Salerno--but you would never learn from Cannon that DiMaggio was perhaps the most imperious personality in sport or that Joe Louis, in retirement, was going slowly mad with drugs, that to guard himself against imagined predators from the IRS and the CIA he clogged the air-conditioning vents with cotton and smeared his windows with Vaseline.

The new generation, men like Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield, Jerry Izenberg and Gay Talese, all admired Cannon's immediacy, but Cannon begrudged them their new outlook, their education, their youth. In the late fifties, Talese wrote countless elegant features for the Times and then, even more impressively, a series of profiles in the sixties for Esquire on Patterson, Louis, DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, and the theater director Joshua Logan. None of the pieces were what writers would call "trash jobs"--they were filled with affection for the person and admiration for craft--but they also delved into Patterson's fears, Louis's terrible decline, DiMaggio's loneliness, Sinatra's nastiness, and Logan's mental breakdowns. Talese combined the techniques of reporting and fiction; he filled his notebooks with facts, interviews, and observations, but structured his pieces like short stories.



When Talese was still at the Times and writing about his favorite subjects, Patterson and Cus D'Amato, he was considered an eccentric. In the newsroom, Talese wore immaculate hand-tailored suits; he was, in the words of one colleague, "blindingly handsome." But for all his outward polish and youth, he approached his work like a reporter, seeking out ballplayers, getting to know them. In those days, this was un-Times-like for the sports department. Daley, who was the dominant columnist since the forties, derived his prestige from the paper itself; when he won the Pulitzer Prize, many of his colleagues grumbled and said that it should have gone to Red Smith at the Herald Tribune or Cannon at the Post. Daley's prose was flat, but it was the prose that the Pulitzer committee read, if they read sports at all. Most of the other sportswriters on the Times were no less imperial: they carried themselves as if they were The New York Times's ambassador to the court of baseball or the court of basketball. When Allison Danzig covered the U.S. Open at Forest Hills he did not deign to seek out a tennis player for an interview; the player sought out Allison Danzig. Not a few of the deskmen and reporters were appalled by the unorthodox presence of Gay Talese, and they could never figure out why the managing editor, Turner Catledge, had set him loose on the sporting world.

When Talese left the paper in 1965 to write books and longer magazine articles, he had one inheritor in place, a reporter in his mid-twenties named Robert Lipsyte. Like Cannon, Lipsyte grew up in New York, but he was a middle-class Jew from the Rego Park neighborhood in Queens. He went from his junior year at Forest Hills High School straight to Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1957. After mulling over a career as a screenwriter or an English professor, Lipsyte applied for a job as a copy boy at the Times and, to his astonishment, got it. "They usually said they hired Rhodes scholars in those days," he said. As a copy boy, Lipsyte admired Talese for his sense of style and innovation, for his ability to squeeze a distinct voice onto the uniform pages of the Times. Lipsyte made the staff at twenty-one when he showed hustle: one day the hunting and fishing columnist failed to send in a column from Cuba, and so Lipsyte sat down and, on deadline, knocked out a strange and funny column on how fish and birds were striking back at anglers and hunters. Lipsyte wrote about high school basketball players like Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown. He helped cover the 1962 Mets with Louis Effrat, a Timesman who had lost the Dodgers beat when they moved out of Brooklyn. Effrat's admiration for his younger colleague was, to say the least, grudging: "Kid, they say in New York you can really write but you don't know what the fuck you're writing about."

If there was one subject that Lipsyte made it a point to learn about, it was race. In 1963, he met Dick Gregory, one of the funniest comics in the country and a constant presence in the civil rights movement. The two men became close friends, and eventually Lipsyte helped Gregory write Nigger, his autobiography. Even as a sports reporter, Lipsyte contrived ways to write about race. He wrote about the Blackstone Rangers gang, he got to know Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. He covered rallies at which black protesters expressed their outrage against a country that would celebrate blacks only when they carried a football or boxed in a twenty-foot ring.

In the winter of 1963-64, the Times's regular boxing writer, Joe Nichols, declared that the Liston-Clay fight was a dog and that he was going off to spend the season covering racing at Hialeah. The assignment went to Lipsyte.

Unlike Jimmy Cannon and the other village elders, Lipsyte found himself entranced with Clay. Here was this funny, beautiful, skilled young man who could fill your notebook in fifteen minutes.

"Clay was unique, but it wasn't as if he were some sort of creature from outer space for me," Lipsyte said. "For Jimmy Cannon, he was, pardon the expression, an uppity nigger, and he could never handle that. The blacks he liked were the blacks of the thirties and the forties. They knew their place. Joe Louis called Jimmy Cannon 'Mr. Cannon' for a long time. He was a humble kid. Now here comes Cassius Clay popping off and abrasive and loud, and it was a jolt for a lot of sportswriters, like Cannon. That was a transition period. What Clay did was make guys stand up and decide which side of the fence they were on.

"Clay upset the natural order of things at two levels. The idea that he was a loud braggart brought disrespect to this noble sport. Or so the Cannon people said. Never mind that Rocky Marciano was a slob who would show up at events in a T-shirt so that the locals would buy him good clothes. They said that Clay 'lacked dignity.' Clay combined Little Richard and Gorgeous George. He was not the sort of sweet dumb pet that writers were accustomed to. Clay also did not need the sportswriters as a prism to find his way. He transcended the sports press. Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith, so many of them, were appalled. They didn't see the fun in it. And, above all, it was fun."

A week before the fight, Clay stretched out on a rubbing table at the Fifth Street Gym and told the reporters who gathered around, "I'm making money, the popcorn man making money, and the beer man, and you got something to write about."

The next day, Lipsyte heard that the Beatles would be dropping by the Fifth Street Gym. The visit had been arranged, of course, by the eternally hip Harold Conrad, who was publicizing the fight for MacDonald. The Beatles were in Miami to do The Ed Sullivan Show. Liston had actually gone to their performance and was not much impressed. As the Beatles ripped through their latest single, the champion turned to Conrad and said, "Are these motherfuckers what all the people are screaming about? My dog plays drums better than that kid with the big nose." Conrad figured that Clay would understand a bit better.

Lipsyte was twenty-six, a card-carrying member of the rock and roll generation, and he saw that for all its phoniness, a meeting between the Beatles and Clay was a meeting of the New, two acts that would mark the sixties. The older columnists passed, but he saw a story.

The Beatles arrived. They were still in the mop-top phase, but they were also quite aware of their own appeal. Clay was not in evidence, and Ringo Starr was angry.
"Where the fuck's Clay?" he said.
To kill a few minutes, Ringo began introducing the members of the band to Lipsyte and a few other reporters, though he introduced George Harrison as Paul and Lennon as Harrison, and finally Lennon lost patience.
"Let's get the fuck out of here," he said. But two Florida state troopers blocked the door and somehow kept them in the gym just long enough for Clay to show up.
"Hello, there, Beatles," said Cassius Clay. "We oughta do some road shows together. We'll get rich."
The photographers lined up the Beatles in the ring and Clay faked a punch to knock them all to the canvas: the domino punch.
Now the future of music and the future of sports began talking about the money they were making and the money they were going to make.
"You're not as stupid as you look," Clay said.
"No," Lennon said, "but you are."
Clay checked to make sure Lennon was smiling, and he was.

The younger writers, like Lipsyte, really did see Clay as a fifth Beatle, parallel players in the great social and generational shift in American society. The country was in the midst of an enormous change, an earthquake, and this fighter from Louisville and this band from Liverpool were part of it, leading it, whether they knew it yet or not. The Beatles' blend of black R&B and Liverpool pop and Clay's blend of defiance and humor was changing the sound of the times, its temper; set alongside the march on Washington and the quagmire in Vietnam, they would, in their way, become essential pieces of the sixties phantasmagoria.

For most of the older columnists, however, this PR-inspired scene at the Fifth Street Gym was just more of all that was going wrong in the world, more noise, more disrespect, more impudence from young men whom they could not hope to comprehend. "Clay is part of the Beatle movement," Jimmy Cannon would write famously a few years later. "He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear and the punks riding motorcycles with iron crosses pinned to their leather jackets and Batman and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments and the revolt of students who get a check from Dad every first of the month and the painters who copy the labels off soup cans and the surf bums who refuse to work and the whole pampered style-making cult of the bored young."
David Remnick

About David Remnick

David Remnick - King of the World

Photo © Gasper Tringale

David Remnick has been the editor of The New Yorker since 1998. A staff writer for the magazine from 1992 to 1998, he was previously The Washington Post's correspondent in the Soviet Union. The author of several books, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award for his 1994 book Lenin's Tomb. He lives in New York with his wife and children.
Praise

Praise

"By now we all have our notions about what Ali meant -- to his time and to the history of his sport. Of course David Remnick sheds light on these subjects, but where King of the World really shines is in the ring itself. With telling detail, Remnick captures the drama, danger, beauty, and ugliness of a generation's worth of big heavyweight fights." -- Bob Costa

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