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Books: A sane voice in a world of poverty and crime; King of the World By David Remnick (Random House, pounds 14.99). Reviewed by Michael Emery.

You could be forgiven for assuming that a book about Muhammad Ali that contained barely a mention of Joe Frazier or George Foreman would be a complete dud. Did not Ali's fight with these men define his greatness as a boxer and go a long way towards justifying the existence of boxing as a sport?

Well yes, but Pulitzer Prize winning author David Remnick is more interested in how Ali changed not just boxing but society. It is a risky strategy but it works. And it works because King of the World (Random House, pounds 14.99) is the compelling story of society and boxing before Ali.

Although for most people the 1950s and early 1960s were terribly drab, the sport of boxing was inhabited by a cast of characters straight out of Damon Runyon. And Remnick uses them all - the guys and dolls, the gamblers and the broads, the boulevardiers and the ever present Mafia.

In a sense the author had little choice but to use this strategy. Any biographer wishing to produce a book about Ali would be faced with a problem that nowadays Ali can barely stand let alone talk.

Instead of yet another version of the "Rumble in the Jungle" we are reminded of the biggest beast in the jungle - Sonny Liston. Thought to be invincible, and from whom Ali first won the heavyweight championship, Liston's life was so tragic that at his funeral in 1971 one of his friends was heard to intone: "Sonny Liston died the day he was born".

An inept thief known to the police as the yellow shirt bandit with inevitable consequence of arrest, Liston was one of 25 children born to a brutal Arkansas share cropper. Liston ran away at 13 and was serving a five-year sentence in Missouri State Prison by the time he was 20.

So hard had Sonny's life been up until that time that he was not inconvenienced at all by the experience. He always said that the food was the best he had ever eaten, a statement made all the more vivid when the author reminds us that the notorious riots there 1954 were over the quality of the food!

Although a natural thug, Liston was not entirely humourless. I cannot but warm to a man who opined: "I'd rather be a lamppost in Denver than mayor of Philadelphia."

Then as now the richest prize in sport was the Heavyweight Championship of the World and all of boxing and its major champions were allegedly in the pockets of the Mafia. Sonny Liston showed such promise that soon after leaving prison he became the property of the gangster who controlled most of boxing - Frankie Carbo.

Carbo was the Mafia's's most ruthless assassin. He committed his first murder aged 20 - no wonder even Sonny Liston did what he was told.

Liston was, explained Remnick the last great champion to be delivered into the hands of the mob. It would take Ali to break the grip of organised crime protected as he was by the Nation of Islam. Long before the rise of Frankie Carbo, a generation of Prohibition Era gangsters such as Al Capone, Legs Diamond and Lucky Luciano, ran fighters, promoted fights, fixed fights and bet on fights.

For Remnick: "The underworld liked boxing because boxers themselves are outsiders. The saying in boxing is that only a fool or a desperate man gets hit in the head to earn a living. And since boxers come into the game from the margins, they are approachable by men from the margins of business."

With Carbo as his manager and having poleaxed every challenger who dared to stand in front of him, Liston was soon fighting Floyd Patterson for the Heavyweight Championship.

To describe Patterson as an enigma would be an understatement. Although a little small for a heavyweight he had blinding hand speed and a devastating left hook, but he possessed a crippling handicap for a fighter - he felt compassion for his opponents.

And because of his penchant for analysing the human condition he quickly earned the reputation for being a neurotic in shorts, cynical sports writers christened him "Freud" Patterson.

Remnick's description of the introverted Patterson is masterful: "Once Patterson won the championship, he never projected the arrogance of a heavyweight champion. He never had the proper disdain. His eyes were sad and vulnerable. The dreamy eyes of a jilted teenager."

Patterson was managed by Cus D'Armato, who although his name ends in a vowel was not a member of the Mafia. On the contrary he lived in fear of them and slept with a gun. He should have loaned it to Patterson for his fight with Liston because Floyd was poleaxed in two minutes six seconds of the first round. The return fight a year later last only a couple of seconds longer.

Following his second victory over Patterson, it was assumed that Liston would be champion for ever. But only two years later along came Muhammad Ali to defeat Liston twice and illuminate not only the murky corners of boxing's demimonde but society itself.

It could be argued, and Remnick does, that Ali did as much for the American black community as Martin Luther King. He changed the American public's perception of the Vietnam war and ultimately became quite simply one of the most famous men who ever lived.

And although it is nearly 20 years since Ali last fought and even though he is now a trembling travesty of the man who transcended not only sport but the planet he fascinates us as he always did.

Even now you could put him in a room full of so called celebrities and their ludicrously inflated egos will be diminished by his presence. Anyone who saw the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century would attest to that.

David Remnick has taken an approach to Ali's life and early career almost as unorthodox as his subject did to boxing. The result is a beautifully written narrative that captures the essence of Ali more completely than anything I have ever read.

And it comes as no surprise to learn that Ali does not fear death and has composed his own epithet - "A man who did not look down on those who looked up to him."
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Author:Emery, Michael
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 5, 2000
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