Book of the Week

King Of The World by David Remnick Random House, $35 hardback
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The Independent Online
THERE WERE times in heavyweight boxing when the high wisdom of people such as Eugenia Williams was not needed.

This was the early 1960s, when Sonny Liston was knocking over the frightened Floyd Patterson and the big bear himself was then stopped consecutively by two fighters called Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali, who fought almost identically. No wonder Liston got confused.

It is a brief era, and the only era, covered by this book, so browsers who see just Ali's face on the cover and title "King Of The World" should not get as bemused as old Sonny.

It is not the intention, but this is a sad story. Patterson is characterised as a frightened scrapper, Liston locked in the unforgiving knuckles of the Mafia and, of course, Ali is Ali. These men, you remember, are supposed to be the winners.

The rheumy eyes will get pleasure from this as Remnick depicts Ali in the days when he almost made you believe in the great boxing falsehood: that this is an art or application wherein a man can hit but not be hit, the sweet science.

As the author himself points out, these preliminary deeds of Ali are about as relevant to anyone under 40 as Agincourt might be. The Greatest can no longer smile and he speaks haltingly. It is a cruel affliction for one so formerly eloquent. "I don't intend to leave it [boxing] with ugly souvenirs of my career," he once announced. "I won't retire from boxing with cuts, cauliflower ears and a busted nose.

"I'll leave boxing physically intact, just as I am now. I will do this because my style of boxing protects me from cuts and injuries, yet it wins. I beat my opponents, you might say, gently."

There is a brief audience with the Ali of today, brief because that is all he can manage now. In this conversation, he closes his eyes and drifts off, probably to better days. It is easier, if not morally correct, to remember him in healthier times.

There is further reference to the modern day and, as the life and career of Liston is analysed, it is striking how much he compares to a present fighter: the early deprivation, the installation of fear into his opponents and the downfall once his bullying was exposed. Mike Tyson better be careful. Sonny Liston died at age 38.

Random House Inc, New York, NY 10022, USA.