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Tracing Muhammad Ali's Rise To 'King Of The World'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.


MUHAMMAD ALI: I'm experienced now, professional - jaws been broke, been lost, knocked down a couple of times. I'm bad - been chopping trees, I done something new for this fight. I done wrestle with an alligator.


ALI: That's right. I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That's bad. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I'm so mean I make medicine sick.


ALI: Yeah, fast, fast, fast - last night, I cut the light off in my bedroom, hit the switch, was in the bed before the room was dark.


ALI: Fast.


ALI: And you George Foreman, all you chumps are going to bow when I whoop him, all of you. I know you got him. I know you got him picked, but the man's in trouble. I'm going to show you how great I am.

BIANCULLI: That was Muhammad Ali in 1974, stealing the spotlight before his upcoming heavyweight title fight with George Foreman, billed as the Rumble in the Jungle. Today, the nation says goodbye to Ali as he's laid to rest in his hometown of Louisville. Today on FRESH AIR, we listen back to an interview with author David Remnick. His biography "King Of The World: Muhammad Ali And The Rise Of An American Hero," was honored as best non-fiction book of the year in 1998 by Time magazine. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1994 history "Lenin's Tomb" about the last days of the Soviet empire. This interview with Terry Gross is from 1998, when his biography of Ali was published and shortly before Remnick became editor of The New Yorker. He's also host of the podcast and radio program "The New Yorker Radio Hour."



You say that Ali entered the world of boxing at a time when the expectation was that a black fighter would behave with absolute deference to white sensibilities. Give me an example of what you mean there.

DAVID REMNICK: The champion at the time when Muhammad Ali - then Cassius Clay - was in the Olympics - he was then a light heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics - was Floyd Patterson. And Floyd Patterson was certainly no era-shaking fighter. He was not Joe Louis by any stretch of the imagination. But he imitated Joe Lewis as a social type for reasons of being accepted by the white world, by white columnists like Jimmy Cannon or Red Smith.

And Patterson was a champion for a very brief time before he was utterly destroyed in the ring twice by Sonny Liston, who was another - who was a different type, who was somebody who was a destroyer, who in his time was a fighter not unlike Mike Tyson and a personality not unlike Mike Tyson, an extremely scary figure to everyone. The NAACP endorsed Floyd Patterson before his fight with Sonny Liston because they were so terrified that Sonny Liston would come along and occupy this place in the American culture, which really only accepted black men as athletes, and it would be bad for the race, essentially. But lo and behold, Sonny Liston was the superior fighter and beat Floyd Patterson twice, both times in the first round.

GROSS: Well, Ali, when you interviewed him, told you that he wanted to be a new kind of black man when he became famous as a fighter. How do you see him fitting in as a new kind of black men in the world of boxing?

REMNICK: He was in a new and surprising way. He represented a generational shift that took whites and middle-class blacks as well by surprise. He was the forerunner to the black power movement. He was the forerunner to the draft resistance movement. He came along at a time when these sort of things were unknown to whites. His father was a fairly humble sign painter in Louisville, Ky. And his father was deeply influenced - as were many blacks throughout the country in the '20s, '30s and thereafter - by Marcus Garvey, black nationalism of a kind that whites had no clue about. Even before he was fighting, he was filled with this - this notion of what a black man, what a black woman, what anyone in segregated Louisville had to live through and suffer. And he would have none of it.

GROSS: Well, before he became politicized and before he joined the Nation of Islam, he became known for his really flamboyant style of showmanship and particularly for his great rhyming. And what insights did you get about how he developed that showmanship and the verbal flamboyance?

REMNICK: It began at the beginning. He had his first fight when he was 12 years old. Another kid had stolen his bicycle, and little Cassius Clay was very angry.

REMNICK: And he went down to a basement gym run by a cop in town named Joe Martin. And Joe Martin said, stop being so angry and stop threatening to beat everybody up and why don't you learn how to fight? And so Cassius Clay learned how to fight and put on gigantic gloves - he was a little skinny kid. And he fought one of those sort of church basement type fights. And he won a split decision, 12 years old, 98 pounds. And his reaction afterwards was, I am the greatest. I will be champion of the world. I am the greatest - the rhetoric that you would hear years and years later, and you would think he invented it last week. It came out of his mouth after a split decision against another 12-year-old.

GROSS: What was Sonny Liston's reaction to Ali's kind of playful but also aggressive verbal showmanship before their first championship bout together?

REMNICK: Fury and confusion. Sonny Liston was a very simple man, intellectually limited, and this drove him crazy. He was a great and powerful fighter. He thought he would have no trouble with this guy who fought like Sugar Ray Robinson. He danced around the ring, which, you know, was a bit fey for a heavyweight, after all. And Cassius Clay, who was fearful of Sonny Liston in his heart because he knew how powerful he was - he had seen what he had done to Floyd Patterson - wanted to find a way to get to his mind, to unnerve him. To scare him. To make him second-guess. To think really, that he was crazy because the one thing that Sonny Liston couldn't deal with was somebody who was nuts. Always in prison - where Sonny Liston had spent some time - the person you never dealt with, the person you always avoided was the crazy man. That's what you avoided.

And so - and Cassius Clay knew that. I'm calling him Clay now, because that's who he was at the time. And Clay did things like, you know, drive his bus to Sonny Liston's house in the middle of the night, at 3 o'clock in the morning, run up to the door, and start pounding on the door screaming and yelling and acting like an insane person. And Sonny Liston would come out on the lawn in his shorty bathrobe not knowing what to make of this guy. And it really unnerved him. And Clay and then Ali did it over and over and over again. And the one thing Sonny Liston couldn't deal with was a madman. But for Clay, of course, it was all by design.

And the most famous instance of it was the weigh-in before the first fight. The weigh-in, Cassius Clay comes in and starts screaming and yelling. Usually these are routine performances in which you really don't do anything other than get weighed and flex your muscles and get the hell out of there. He's screaming and yelling - I'm going to destroy him - and he's jumping at Liston. It was the most amazing performance, and Sonny Liston went into that ring thinking he was dealing with a nut.

GROSS: Let's get to his actual championship fights with Sonny Liston - and you keep coming back to this through the book. Ali almost ended the first championship fight with Liston because his eyes were burning so much he couldn't even see. I guess there's always been the rumor that Sonny Liston may have juiced his gloves, meaning put some kind of substance on his gloves that would've ended up in Ali's eyes - a chemical of some sort.

REMNICK: My reporting tells me that's beyond rumor, that that really was the case.

GROSS: That it really was the case?

REMNICK: What had happened was, Sonny Liston got into this ring having trained for no more than a five-round fight. He really thought, in the way Mike Tyson dealing with Michael Spinks or some inferior fighter, that he would dispatch with this loud-mouthed kid very quickly and go out to dinner. First round happens, and this kid is faster than Sugar Ray Robinson. And he's sticking a jab in his face and welts are coming up and he cannot touch him. Liston cannot touch him. He's missing by not three inches but by two feet. Round two, same thing. And on and on it goes.

And all that is left to Sonny Liston, as he gets more and more tired, as his hands begin to sink to his side - boxing is an extraordinarily exhausting process, especially if you haven't trained - that he decides to cheat. And with the help of one of his corner men, he put some substance on his gloves. He puts some substances - whether it was Monsel's solution or some sort of liniment on the gloves - something he had done before, by the way - and he gets it in Clay's eyes. And Clay sits down in the corner and he tells Angelo Dundee, cut off the gloves, I can't see. I'm blind. Cut them off. He wants to quit. It's the one thing that he didn't know how to deal with - being blind.

I mean, he knew he was beating Sonny Liston to the punch every single step of the way. And Angelo Dundee quickly gets as much water into his eyes as possible - to his fighter's eyes - and tells him, baby, you ain't quitting. This is for the big one. This is for the title. No quitting now. Just go out, dance, yardstick him - which means keep your left out as far as you can - keep your distance. You have a slight reach thing. You've got the speed, and wait till it flushes out. Meanwhile, in the corner, the black Muslims are sitting there screaming and yelling that Angelo Dundee is a member of the mob and he's juiced the gloves, that it's Angelo Dundee who's responsible for this because, after all, he has an Italian name and the mob is still all over boxing at the time.

The mob controlled Sonny Liston. So this is the drama going on in the space of 60 seconds. Angelo Dundee somehow convinces the referee not to come over to the corner and end the whole thing. Ali goes back out, eventually the stuff washes out of his eyes, and he finishes the job. He continues to frustrate Liston. And Liston finally just will not get off his stool to come out and fight the seventh round. End of story.

GROSS: So Ali becomes the heavyweight champion there and then there's a rematch, and the rematch is extraordinary 'cause Ali knocks him out so quickly.

REMNICK: Well, it's a bizarre fight. It's held in Lewiston, Maine, which is, you know, a textile town that's, you know, one strip joint and two restaurants and a hotel in Poland Springs. And all the sportswriters are whining, and, why are we here? And they come out, Ali does his thing. He's dancing around the ring, dancing around the ring. Liston is struggling to keep up. All of a sudden, Ali turns, pivots, hits Liston with the fastest punch that slow-motion has ever recorded. Down goes Liston.

The timekeeper loses all sense of how to do his job. The referee is Jersey Joe Walcott, who really - fine fighter, bad referee - confusion. End of fight. Probably the most ambiguous and strange heavyweight title fight of all time, at least since the Long Count of Dempsey long ago.

BIANCULLI: David Remnick speaking to Terry Gross in 1998. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1998 interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick, author of "King Of The World," his notable 1998 biography of Muhammad Ali.


GROSS: How was Ali introduced to Islam?

REMNICK: It's strange. We think he was influenced when he first went to down to Miami and basically met some street guys who were selling, you know, Nation of Islam newspapers. Not so. When he was an amateur fighter, still in high school, he would go in a station wagon with some other amateurs from Louisville and fight in regional fights, and one time he was up in Chicago. At that time, the Nation of Islam was completely centered in Chicago. Elijah Muhammad lived there. As a kid, he was wandering around on the street and he was given a copy of Muhammad Speaks. And he also bought a record album of Elijah Muhammad's sermons, essentially.

And he brought these home and he was completely taken up by it. Clearly, this was a searching kid. Not an intellectual powerhouse, not a, you know, master of his schoolwork, but a searching mind, someone deeply troubled by the segregated place where he grew up with, deeply troubled by the fact that his father was a sign painter who really believed he should've been an artist and was held down. For his senior paper in his senior year of high school, he wanted to write a paper on the Nation of Islam. Well, no one had hardly heard of the Nation of Islam in Louisville. And the teacher said, no, you can't write about this strange and ultimately threatening thing. So there was the seat of it. And then of course it blossomed when he became a professional fighter after the Olympics and started meeting with Muslims and Muslim teachers in Miami.

GROSS: You say that when he became a member of the Nation of Islam that Elijah Muhammad was ambivalent about Cassius Clay and ambivalent about boxing in general. What was that ambivalence about?

REMNICK: He was ambivalent about boxing because he thought - not unreasonably - that the history of boxing, in the United States especially, is rooted in slavery. It's rooted in the spectacle of strong black men made to fight each other for the amusement of whites. And Elijah Muhammad was, for obvious reasons, all against that. On the other hand, although he saw Elijah Muhammad as the spiritual father of the movement, the person he was closest to was Malcolm X. Malcolm X was not bothered much by boxing. In fact, Malcolm X was a pretty good athlete growing up. He liked these things. And so he was able to sort of dance the dance for a while. And Malcolm X was extremely close with Clay and was down in Miami with him leading up to that first dramatic fight with Liston. They both stayed at the Hampton Court Hotel. And Malcolm was there as Clay's guest with his wife. And they became extremely close.

It was the formative relationship where politics and where religion was concerned prior to Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali. Until then, by the way, no one really knew that Cassius Clay was, in effect, a member of the Nation of Islam. He knew very well, was very sophisticated about this, that if he announced that he was an adherent to the Nation of Islam before the title fight, the fight would never happen. And in fact the promoter of the fight, Bill McDonald, did find out because there were some press leaks. And he threatened to call the whole fight off, and Clay refused to renounce anything and they came to a compromise. In the compromise, he was - he would wait till after the fight to announce this. So in the course of 24 hours, in February 1964, Cassius Clay became heavyweight champion of the world to the shock of the entire sporting world, and the next morning announced to the shock of everyone that he was a new and different man, a member of the Nation of Islam.

GROSS: Ali told you when you were talking with him that one of his greatest regrets was basically having abandoned Malcolm in favor of Elijah Muhammad.

REMNICK: When I went up to visit Muhammad Ali in Berrien Springs, Mich., where he lives on a farm, one of the first things he did was take an 8-by-10 glossy out of his briefcase and show it to me. The picture was of him and Malcolm X, and it was very moving, the way of showing me - you know, he wasn't taking a picture out of Elijah Muhammad or some other fight. It was this relationship that he was deeply proud of. After he became champion, Malcolm X went up to New York with Clay, soon to become Ali. They were great friends. They went to the U.N. They hung out at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem and all the rest.

But then Elijah Muhammad put his foot down and demanded that he choose - the fighter choose - between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. And he did. He chose. And he rejected Malcolm X severely and immediately and completely, so much so that on a subsequent trip to Africa some weeks later, they literally - Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali - bumped into each other in a hotel lobby. Malcolm X tried to approach him in the friendliest way possible, and Muhammad Ali simply mocked him, made fun of him. And that was the end of it. And of course a year later, Malcolm X was gunned down at the Audubon Ballroom uptown in Manhattan.

GROSS: Ali's showmanship certainly helped sell tickets for his fights. What about his membership in the Nation of Islam? A lot of white people saw the Nation as being an anti-white group and were very alienated by Ali's conversion. How did that affect who showed up at his fights?

REMNICK: Well, at first it was a great threat. And, as you know, in the second Liston fight, first of all, they could barely get a venue. They could barely find a place to fight. There was the threat of the mob. There was also the specter of the Nation of Islam. And they - a championship fight was held in a small town in Maine in front of just a few thousand people - 3,000, 4,000 people. I mean, this is unimaginable. This is when boxing, by the way, was still big. And you can be sure that it had its effect. And certainly when he refused the draft, this sense of alienation, this sense of division between Ali and his public only deepened. And he certainly...

GROSS: Well, for some people it deepened, and for others - like, for you, for instance - it kind of strengthened the connection to him because there were so many young people who were alienated.

REMNICK: Later, later.

GROSS: That's true. That's true. Right.

REMNICK: Remember, this is us thinking backward. Also, I was a kid at the time. Certainly if you were 19 years old and against the war, you thought this was a pretty amazing thing that this fighter would step away from the heavyweight championship, quite likely never to fight again, to give up probably tens of millions of dollars, giving up the one thing he could do - fight - and you saw this is an enormous bravery at a time when the anti-war movement was still in its infancy. This is early 1967. The level of avoiding the draft was nothing like it would be two years later.

GROSS: You know, I think early on when Ali became a member of the Nation of Islam and then became anti-war, I think some people just saw that as a sign of his eccentricity as opposed to as a sign of his deep commitment to certain beliefs.

REMNICK: Well, you know, what always saved Ali - what always saved him from becoming alienated from certain publics, whether it was the bragging or the politics or the religion, there was always a sense of humor about him. He was always funny, hilarious. And finally, with time, he won over almost everybody - I mean, a few racists here and there, a few people who really felt that his stand on Vietnam was deeply, deeply wrong, a few people that, you know, still yearned for Joe Louis model of behavior, fine. But for the most part, he won over the world so that at the 1996 Olympics, he gets up and lights this torch in the most unexpected, dramatic and moving and beautiful way. And no one's presence on this globe would've moved us more.

BIANCULLI: David Remnick, speaking to Terry Gross in 1998 about his biography of Muhammad Ali, "King Of The World." Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker and the host of "The New Yorker Radio Hour." Coming up, visiting the grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park. And also, a review of the new film "Genius." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.