Books for Christmas: Boxing - Ali's alchemy of the human spirit

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IN DESCRIBING the scene of Cassius Clay's coronation on 25 February 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida, a distinguished American sports columnist, the late Red Smith, wrote: "Cassius Marcellus Clay fought his way out of the horde that swarmed and leaped and shouted in the ring, climbed like a squirrel on to the red velvet ropes and brandished his still-gloved hand aloft. `Eat your words,' he howled to the working press rows, `Eat your words.'"

Smith's words, the words of practically every reporter at ringside. Words that carried resentment of Clay's uniquely extravagant style, his brashness and obvious contempt for the racist convention that he should be grateful for a chance to rise above disenfranchisement.

At least Smith had the grace to add: "Nobody ever had a better right [to howl at the press].

"In a mouth still dry from excitement of the most astounding upset in many roaring years, the words don't taste good, but they taste better than they read. The words written here, and practically everywhere else until the impossible became the unbelievable truth, said Sonny Liston would squash Cassius Clay like a bug."

As David Remnick states in The King of the World (Random House), not the most comprehensive or revealing, but beyond doubt the most elegantly crafted book about Muhammad Ali (so far only available in the United States): "some of Clay's other detractors could barely bring themselves to admit that they had been so wrong about him.

"Dick Young's column for the [New York] Daily News seethed with resentment, as if the outcome had been a conspiracy designed specifically to offend him. `If Cassius wants me to say he's the greatest, all right, I'll say it,' Young groused in print, `but I'll say he scored the greatest retreating victory since the Russians suckered Napoleon into a snow bank. I never saw Joe Louis run away and win, or Rocky Marciano, and I'm sure my father never saw Jack Dempsey run away and win, and my grandfather never saw John L Sullivan run away and win.'"

American friends in this trade who think Remnick spends too much time putting down sportswriters of that era point out that Ali was a culture shock, a dramatic departure from the custom of one-dimensional fighters.

They miss not only the irony of Ali's lasting fame as a boxer but that of his subsequent passage from reviled draft-dodger and rabble-rouser to all-American hero.

As for allegiance to the Nation of Islam, his apparent acceptance of a philosophy that damned the white man as a devil, Remnick quotes Ali's ring doctor Ferdie Pacheco. "He's not a hater," Pacheco tells the author. "But he's always marched to his own drummer. He sees things as he wants to. Whatever is best for him, whatever ideology is best for him, whatever programme is best for the way he thinks his life should be."

Ali treads slowly now, each careful step a measure of the difficulties inflicted by Parkinson's disease. But in Remnick's stylish prose there is resurrection. Although Ali is followed no further along the yellow brick road than his defeat of Floyd Patterson in November 1965 it is enough.

Editor of New Yorker magazine, Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize for Lenin's Tomb: The fall of Communism. With this penetrating study of events that announced Ali as the sports figure of the century and a symbol of black consciousness he lives up to his credentials.

Nobody on this side of the Atlantic who was assigned to charting Ali's progress got closer to him than the ITV boxing commentator Reg Gutteridge.

There are many anecdotes about their relationship in Gutteridge's entertaining autobiography Uppercuts and Dazes (John Blake Publishing, pounds 16.99). When recovering in hospital from a serious illness Gutteridge woke up one evening to find Ali standing over him. Hearing in London that Gutteridge was unwell Ali insisted on seeing him at a late hour. His senses by then impaired, Ali placed a hand on Gutteridge's brow and mumbled a Muslim prayer.

It came as no surprise to boxing people when Naseem Hamed split with his Irish mentor Brendan Ingle. The turbulence that entered their relationship after Hamed became established as a major figure in the sport is vividly documented by Nick Pitt in The Paddy and the Prince (Random House, pounds 16).

Considered by Gene Tunney to have possessed "the keenest and most analytical brain that ever graced a prize ring", James J Corbett caused a technical revolution in boxing when he defeated John L Sullivan in 1892 to become the first heavyweight champion under Marquis of Queensberry rules. Born in California to Irish emigrants, Corbett brought science to a sport that had previously been regarded as a brutal test of raw courage and strength.

The fascinating story of Corbett's remarkable career in and out of the ring is well told by Patrick Myler in Gentleman Jim Corbett - The Truth Behind a Boxing Legend (Robson Books, pounds 17.95).