By ED STODDARD, Shunpiking Magazine, 3rd Annual Black History Supplement, No. 24, 1999
LAST FEBRUARY, while visiting the sweltering slum town of Banjarmasin on the island of Bornco, I came across a group of young Indonesian boys sparring by the river bank. Jokingly, I told them that they were like Muhammad Ali and held my fist up, readied for mock combat. The boys needed no further prompting. Immediately, they began shouting “Muhammad Ali!” and Ali-like, they began dancing and firing left jabs at each other.
I began on this anecdotal note because my only quibble with David Remnick’s fine book on Muhammad Ali lies in its sub-title: ‘‘Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero.’ In many ways, Ali was very much an American hero – champion of a sport and division dominated by his countrymen, a handsome and brash athlete in a TV age defined by American poplar culture, and a towering figure in the black nationalist and Vietnam war movements that came to symbolise 1960s America. But Ali’s appeal – and hence his heroic status – extended far beyond the borders of his homeland, as the books main title, King of the World, suggests. In 1974, when he stunned the boxing world by knock-ing out the formidable George Foreman in the eighth round – reclaiming his heavyweight title – in Kinshasa, the capital of Former Zaire, the crowd was 100 per cent behind Ali. And the boys I met in Borneo were no more than 12, which meant they were born after Ali retired. In the slums of the third world, it seems he is still a household name.
Traditionally Ali is viewed as being one of the greatest exemplars of boxing. Yet Ali goes beyond the concept of the athlete disconnected from the real world, oblivious to the struggles around him. The integrity of the stances he took on a range of political and social issues speak for themselves, including his opposition to the Vietnam war. His refusal to be drafted into the U.S. army, as Remnick points out, widened the scope of his rebellion, which had been a racial one at the outset. It, also, in the short term, cost him his title, his career, and millions of dollars in lost revenue. In the long term, it cemented his legend, both in the ring (with his comeback which culminated in his shocking victory over the much younger and stronger George Foreman), and outside, where his principled stand against America’s unjust war against a Third World people ensured his fame years later among the children in a Borneo slum.
Remnick’s book focuses on the 1960s, when Ali rose from humble origins in Louisville, Kentucky to become a cultural icon. It was a decade which also saw the rise of a Black rights movement in Nova Scotia, which was almost certainly touched and influenced by Ali. In this province, with its own rich history of struggle against racial discrimination and a long boxing tradition, Ali has been a pivotal figure in the lives of many people. His visit to Halifax in 1985 was a popular one and touched many.
The cast of Remnick’s tale is a colourful one. It includes Sonny Liston, “The Big Ugly Bear” who craved the respectability the white media would never give him, Floyd Patterson, a great champion himself who claimed to carry the cross into the ring to do battle with Muhammad’s crescent, and mobsters with names like Thomas “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese. Casting a shadow over all of them is Muhammad Ali, beating them in the ring with his blazing speed or defying them out of the ring with his blazing mouth. In short, this is a very entertaining read, and an astute look at a decade and a man that have left a profound mark on the world.
King of The World. David Remnick, isbn 0-375-50065-0, $35 (hard cover)
Dartmouth native Ed Stoddard is a long-time Muhammad Ali fan who works as a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa.