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David Remnick: King Of The World

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Many people have attained celebrity, but it's the rarest of them who make the leap to the status of folk heroes. If fame in the most general sense is so fleeting, the fact that Muhammad Ali is still in the public eye and imagination—decades after his initial ascension to boxing's heavyweight throne and almost as many years since that sport captured so strongly the attention of the world—demonstrates that there's much more to the man than his accomplishments in the ring. New Yorker editor David Remnick won the Pulitzer Prize for King Of The World, an extremely well-written glimpse at the life and times of a legend that puts Ali and his achievements in a concise political context. Going into this project, Remnick must have realized that there is little to say about Ali that hasn't already been said. But though King Of The World doesn't offer many surprises, it does bring the unique story of Cassius Clay and his controversial conversion to Islam into a focus few biographies achieve. Remnick opens the book with an account of the fight between Sonny Liston (the bad Negro) and Floyd Patterson (the good Negro), a match teeming with racial overtones. By the time Clay himself later beat Liston, asserts Remnick, the sport had changed forever. No longer was boxing just another arm of the mob, or an arena for white people to watch black people beat other people up. The charismatic Clay, as evinced by his conversion to Islam, was a strongly political creature, someone who realized that, in the eyes of millions, he represented a race of people still struggling to empower themselves after years of oppression and prejudice. By making it look so easy, thereby eliminating the struggle, Muhammad Ali delivered a massive right hook to the establishment, using his power of celebrity to bolster the pride of blacks around the world. After all, Ali was more than just king of the world; he was king of the spoken word, and it's doubtful that there will ever be another public figure who captures the spirit of the time the way he did.