Floating like a butterfly

While David Remnick’s book is the finest account of Muhammad Ali’s greatness, Normal Mailer’s accounts catch what it was like to see the big fights first-hand

June 05, 2016 12:22 am | Updated September 16, 2016 01:28 pm IST

AN EPIC BATTLE: “Ali is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous,” wrote Mailer. File photo shows George Foreman taking a right to the head from Muhammad Ali in the match dubbed ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, in Kinshasa.

AN EPIC BATTLE: “Ali is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous,” wrote Mailer. File photo shows George Foreman taking a right to the head from Muhammad Ali in the match dubbed ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, in Kinshasa.

Muhammad Ali, who died aged 74 on Saturday, after a protracted battle with Parkinson’s, was not only the paramount athlete of the last century, but was also peerless in that he provided a curious inspiration to intellectuals of all manner and kind. Indeed, boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, has inspired writers of the greatest calibre. James Baldwin, A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Mike Marqusee and Hunter S. Thompson are but only seven in a long list of illustrious journalists and thinkers to whom the sport represented a subject of enigmatic, and in some cases carnal, interest. Boxing’s raw and often unadulterated violence, the sharp meeting of race and politics in which it was often found, and the sheer virtuoso of its best exhibitionists provided these writers with a distinctive platform to flourish, to use a sport to tell a greater tale.

Transcending definition In this, Ali often served as the greatest metaphor. He was unlike any other pugilist, and was, in many ways, larger than life, transcending easy definition. His skills as a boxer were nonpareil. For a heavyweight he was blessed with the nimblest of footwork, and, in his now immortal words, his aim was always to “float like a butterfly” and to “sting like a bee.” This unique sense of brio — a mesh of pace and power — virtually offered itself for evocative prose. Consider how Mailer begins The Fight , a wonderfully redolent book on Ali’s iconic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ at Kinshasa against George Foreman. “There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down . They are reminded again of their lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.”

But Ali did often quiver the jellies of public opinion. His fiercest punches were often made outside the ring. He was, as David Remnick shows us in his superb King of the World , a symbol of America, a figure representative of change and revolution. Remnick’s account is not a conventional biography. But also, in spite of the author’s avowed fandom, it isn’t to its infinite credit a hagiography either. What it seeks to do instead is to first chart Ali’s growth in his earliest years. Ali’s surprising introduction to boxing, in Remnick’s telling, makes for particularly fascinating reading.

When he was only 12, when he was still Cassius Clay, a furious Ali, Remnick writes, having had his new shiny bicycle stolen, was told to report the case to a police officer in the basement of a building where there was a boxing gym. Ali walked in to the gym, demanding a manhunt for his bike and threatened to “beat all hell out of the kid who had stolen it.” When the officer, a man named Joe Martin, asked Ali if he knew how to fight, Ali apparently said: “No. But I’d fight anyway.” Martin offered to take Ali under his wings at the gym. There, after six weeks of rigorous training, to learn the basics of the sport, Ali was sent into a ring to fight a fellow eighty-nine pounder named Ronnie O’Keefe. Three rounds of sparring followed, and Ali was awarded a split decision. But even then, he showed glimpses of what was to come, as he greeted the verdict to proclaim that he would soon be “the greatest of all time.” These assertions, often made by Ali, can appear pompous, but yet they represent what is really a hard fact.

A touching decision Remnick, now the editor of The New Yorker , goes on to describe in dazzling detail Ali’s fights with Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, the two champions who preceded him. He also records Ali’s movement towards the Nation of Islam, the story of how Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, his friendship and subsequent falling-out with Malcolm X, his activist rise as a campaigner for racial equality, and, even more significantly, his decision — that continues to reverberate in our ethically dubious environment — to refuse participation in combat for the U.S. army in Vietnam that resulted in him being banned from boxing for three full years during a period that would have represented his prime. This choice, Remnick writes, “touched young people, especially young African-Americans, profoundly.”

But while Remnick’s book is the finest account of Ali’s career, those who witnessed the pugilist in the flesh often spawned the best writing on Ali. Here’s Mailer describing Ali, moments after he’d knocked Foreman out in Kinshasa: “Ali sat on the rubbing table with his hands on his knees looking like a happy and tired host after a good party. His face was unmarked except for a small red bruise on one cheekbone. Maybe he never appeared more handsome. He stared out like a child. ‘I have stolen the jam,’ said his eyes, ‘and it tastes good.’ Light twinkled in those eyes all the way back to the beginning. Truth, he looked like a castle all lit up.”

Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court.

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