Rwmnick excerpt concluded

                           KING OF THE WORLD 

(Excerpted from "Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero," by David
Remnick. Random House, 1998)

Chapter One -- UNDERGROUND MAN, Sept 25, 1962

(continued from The BAWLI Papers No. 21)

The literary undercard of the Patterson-Liston fight in Chicago featured the
meeting of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, who was on assignment for Nugget,
a men's magazine which would go out of business in 1965. (Liebling apparently
did not care for the presence of visiting novelists. "The press gatherings
before this fight sometimes resembled those highly intellectual pour-parlers
on a Mediterranean island," he wrote. "Placed before typewriters, the
accumulated novelists could have produced a copy of The Paris Review in forty-
two minutes.") Mailer and Baldwin had been on friendly terms in the fifties,
but by 1961, they were not getting along. Baldwin felt insulted by Mailer both
personally and intellectually: personally because Mailer, in an essay critical
of a range of contemporaries, had called him "too charming to be major";
intellectually because he thought that Mailer's essay on race, "The White
Negro," was dangerous in the way it featured the black man as merely a
collection of unbridled sexual and violent impulses. In a 1961 article for
Esquire called "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," Baldwin said that
Mailer was obsessed with power and was essentially an adolescent, a beatnik,
arrogant and naive, and had committed the folly of advertising a perverse
notion of black culture to titillate the bourgeois white hipsters.

Baldwin arrived in Chicago unsure of his subject. Unlike Mailer, who prided
himself on his knowledge of boxing and knew many trainers and fighters,
Baldwin was ignorant of the sport. He would never acquire Mailer's ease
hanging out at a gym, he could not rely on a ready facility with boxing
history and the metaphors of sporting glory. Baldwin would rely instead on his
empathy for Patterson and Liston, his understanding of them as poor black kids
with an ambition. "I know nothing whatever about the Sweet Science or the
Cruel Profession or the Poor Boy's Game," he wrote. "But I know a lot about
pride, the poor boy's pride, since that's my story and will, in some way,
probably, be my end."

Baldwin, with Gay Talese of the Times as his guide, visited both camps and was
bewildered by the fight-week scene: the reporters gossiping away the morning
and then crashing their stories on deadline, the late dinners on expense
account, the customarily farcical feud between the two fighters, the inane
press conferences, the parties at the Playboy Mansion, the former
champions--Louis, Marciano, Barney Ross, Johansson, Ezzard Charles--milling
around, dispensing opinions for quotation as a form of stature maintenance. In
the pressroom, the general feeling was that Patterson had become champion by
default and, pity though it might be, had little chance against Liston. Look
at how he had lost to a mediocrity like Johansson! Down seven times in a
single round--a human yo-yo!

Baldwin went to Elgin, where Patterson's press aide, Ted Carroll, greeted him
with great deference and gave him a tour of the camp. Carroll seemed to
understand that Baldwin was a beginner in boxing.

"Mr. Baldwin, this is a training camp," he said. "And this countryside matches
the personality of the champion. While his trade is violent, Mr. Baldwin, his
personality is unruffled, bucolic. Is that a good word, Mr. Baldwin?"

Baldwin nodded. Yes, it was.

Carroll set up Baldwin to take a long walk with the champion and watch him
train. Patterson allowed that he had not read any of Baldwin's books, but he
had seen him once on television debating the race question.

"I knew I'd seen you somewhere!" Patterson said.

Baldwin clearly felt something for Patterson--he would even place a $750 bet
on him.

Patterson, for Baldwin, was an unlikely warrior, a complicated, vulnerable,
troubled young man who seemed to yearn for privacy even as he uncorked yet
another interview for another set of reporters. Baldwin watched Patterson jump
rope, "which he must do according to some music in his head, very beautiful
and gleaming and far away, like a boy saint helplessly dancing and seen
through the steaming windows of a storefront church"; it was a scene that
recalled Baldwin's boy saint Elisha, in his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.

After the training session, one of the last before the fight, Baldwin watched
Patterson meet with a few reporters. Patterson drank a cup of hot chocolate
and wore a tight shy smile. He was asked, as he was every day, why he was
fighting Liston.

"Well, it was my decision to take the fight," Patterson said. "You gentlemen
disagreed, but you were the ones who placed him in the number one position, so
I felt it was only right. Liston's criminal record is behind him, not before

"Do you feel you've been accepted as champion?"

"No," he said. "Well, I have to be accepted as champion--but maybe not a good
"Why do you say that the opportunity to become a great champion will never
"Because you gentlemen will never let it arise."

"I mainly remember Floyd's voice, going cheerfully on and on," Baldwin
remembered later in his piece for Nugget, "and the way his face kept changing,
and the way he laughed; I remember the glimpse of him then, a man more complex
than he was yet equipped to know, a hero for many children who were still
trapped where he had been, who might not have survived without the ring, and
who yet oddly did not really seem to belong there."

Before Baldwin left, he gave Patterson copies of Another Country and Nobody
Knows My Name, inscribing them, "To Floyd Patterson... because we both know
whence we come, and have some idea of where we're going."

Baldwin also visited Liston's camp, and there he found the Liston almost no
one else did. Some reporters, including Jack McKinney of the Philadelphia
Daily News, Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger, and Bob Teague of The
New York Times (one of the very few black reporters on the sports beat), had
enjoyed a good rapport with Liston, even when he was still a contender, but
the rest had not. The reporters asked questions that invariably referred to
this arrest or that shortcoming, and Sonny would answer with a grunt or a yes
or a no or a sustained glare.

Even when Liston was trying to be funny with a reporter, he could be
intimidating. A. J. Liebling once went up to visit him in training camp and
was told he would get an interview at a local restaurant after the day's
workout. Liston arrived at the restaurant and everyone around the banquette
ordered cups of steaming tea. Suddenly, Liston's expression soured and he
began screaming at his cornerman, Joe Pollino, about the two dollars he owed
him. The two men argued and then Liston lunged toward Pollino.

"You lie, you hound!" Liston shouted. "Gimme my two bucks!"

As Liebling remembered it, "A vast fist shot out, and I heard a tremendous
smack as Pollino went down, amid a shower of teeth." Liston then pulled out a
pistol and started firing away at his cut man. Pollino slumped in the
banquette. Then Liston turned the revolver on Liebling and fired. "I threw up
my hands and, in doing so, spilled my tea." Liebling's self-description gives
him more credit for calm than was genuinely due. He nearly died of heart
failure on the spot. When he recovered, his overcoat now blotched with tea
stains, Liebling heard Pollino explain that the teeth were actually white
beans and Liston explain that the bullets were blanks.
"You come see us again, hear?" Liston told Liebling. "You come back!"

These public relations tactics, such as they were, got an ex post facto laugh
from Liebling in print, yet they did not always charm. Many of the reporters
approached Liston as they would a monster. The terms "gorilla" and "jungle
cat" were common enough, but the texture of the racism became far more
elaborate. Peter Wilson of The Daily Mirror wrote: "Sometimes he takes so long
to answer a question, and has so much difficulty in finding the word he wants
to use, that it's rather like a long-distance telephone call in a foreign
language. But the man is fascinating. While his scarred face is immobile and
his enormous painted-saucer eyes have the fixed glare of an octopus, his hands
compel attention. The palms are soft and white, like the inside of a banana
skin. His fingers are the unpeeled bananas."

Many of the reporters marked Liston's recalcitrance for stupidity or worse.
Baldwin did not. "He is far from stupid; he is not, in fact, stupid at all,"
he wrote. "And while there is a great deal of violence in him, I sense no
cruelty at all. On the contrary, he reminded me of big, black men I have known
who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that
they weren't hard. Anyone who cared to could turn them into taffy. Anyway, I
liked him, liked him very much. He sat opposite me at the table, sideways,
head down, waiting for the blow: for Liston knows, as only the inarticulately
suffering can, just how inarticulate he is. But let me clarify that: I say
suffering because it seems to me that he has suffered a great deal. It is in
his face, in the silence of that face, and in the curiously distant light in
the eyes--a light which rarely signals because there have been so few
answering signals. And when I say inarticulate, I really do not mean to
suggest that he does not know how to talk. He is inarticulate in the way we
all are when more has happened to us than we know how to express; and
inarticulate in a particularly Negro way--he has a long tale to tell which no
one wants to hear."

Liston, as it turned out, didn't mind talking to Baldwin. The son of a Harlem
preacher, Baldwin, with his bulging sad eyes, was unlike any other writer who
had visited him. Baldwin's soft manner was far different from the wised-up
style of most of the journalists Liston had known, and so he spoke to Baldwin
in a different tone, with his defenses down. "Colored people say they don't
want their children to look up to me," Liston told Baldwin with great sorrow.
"Well, they ain't teaching their children to look up to Martin Luther King,
either." Liston seemed to be issuing a plea through Baldwin. "I wouldn't be no
bad example if I was up there. I could tell a lot of those children what they
need to know because I passed that way. I could make them listen."

Baldwin went away from his meeting with Liston liking him, but racked with
confusion. In Patterson-Liston, the heavyweight championship was once more a
morality play; what was unique was that the opponents were both black and
represented opposing styles of rhetoric, of political style and action.
Baldwin's essay for Nugget was not his best, but in it he was able to rehearse
some of the themes he would develop the following year in what would be his
most thorough statement on race, The Fire Next Time. "I felt terribly
ambivalent, as many Negroes do these days," he wrote of Liston, "since we are
all trying to decide, in one way or another, which attitude, in our terrible
American dilemma, is the more effective: the disciplined sweetness of Floyd,
or the outspoken intransigence of Liston.... Liston is a man aching for
respect and responsibility. Sometimes we grow into our responsibilities and
sometimes, of course, we fail them."

Baldwin's antagonist at the fight, his erstwhile friend Mailer, did not
approach his chore with the same sadness or sense of burden. If Baldwin
approached fight night with dread, Mailer looked forward to it with
pleasure--the event was, after all, an opportunity both to witness something
memorable and to perform. For all the ambition, energy, and self-advertisement
he poured into the novels following The Naked and the Dead--The Deer Park,
Barbary Shore, An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam?--his journalism for
Esquire and Harper's and Life was far more than a job done for money. His
dispatches, written at great speed and length, from prizefights and political
conventions, crackled with an energy that laid waste the conventions of
fifties gentility. He was never more on the job than he was in Chicago for the
Patterson-Liston fight. Patterson, he wrote, was a liberal's liberal. The
worst to be said about Patterson is that he spoke with the same cow's cud as
other liberals. Think what happens to a man with Patterson's reflexes when his
brain starts to depend on the sounds of "introspective," "obligation,"
"responsibility," "inspiration," "commendation," "frustrated,"
"seclusion"--one could name a dozen others from his book. They are a part of
his pride; he is a boy from the slums of Bedford-Stuyvesant who has acquired
these words like stocks and bonds and income-bearing properties. There is no
one to tell him it would be better to keep the psychology of the streets than
to cultivate the contradictory desire to be a great fighter and a great,
healthy, mature, autonomous, related, integrated individual. What a shabby
gentility there has been to Patterson's endeavor....

But the deepest reason that Negroes in Chicago had for preferring Patterson
was that they did not want to enter again the logic of Liston's world. The
Negro had lived in violence, had grown in violence, and yet had developed a
view of life which gave him life. But its cost was exceptional for the
ordinary man. The majority had to live in shame. The demand for courage may
have been exorbitant. Now as the Negro was beginning to come into the white
man's world, he wanted the logic of the white man's world: annuities, mental
hygiene, sociological jargon, committee solutions for the ills of the breast.
He was sick of a whore's logic and a pimp's logic, he wanted no more of mother
wit, of smarts, or playing the dozens, of battling for true love into the
diamond-hard eyes of every classy prostitute and hustler on the street. The
Negro wanted Patterson, because Floyd was the proof a man could be successful
and yet be secure. If Liston won, the old torment was open again. A man could
be successful or he could be secure. He could not have both. If Liston had a
saga, the average Negro wanted none of it.

If, for Mailer, Patterson was the "archetype of the underdog, an impoverished
prince," "Liston was Faust. Liston was the light of every racetrack tout who
dug a number on the way to work. He was the hero of every man who would war
with destiny for so long as he had his gimmick; the cigarette smoker, the
lush, the junkie, the tea-head, the fixer, the bitch, the faggot, the
switchblade, the gun, the corporate executive, anyone who was fixed on power.
It was due to Liston's style of fighting as much as anything else."

A literary footnote to the Baldwin-Mailer presence in Chicago was a short
essay written by a young poet, LeRoi Jones, who had been allied with Allen
Ginsberg and the Beat writers in Greenwich Village and who was becoming more
of a presence in the Black Arts movement. Unlike Baldwin, who loved the
tenderness in Patterson, Jones was disgusted with the champion, calling him an
"honorary" white man who craved acceptance in the bourgeois world. He
celebrated Liston as a threat, "the big black Negro in every white man's
hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men,
through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world." He was
"`the huge Negro,' `the bad nigger,' a heavy-faced replica of every whipped up
woogie in the world. He is the underdeveloped, have-not (politically naive),
backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of
flesh." When Jones printed the essay in a collection titled Home, he added a
footnote saying that now his heart was with the young Cassius Clay, for only
Clay could represent the new militant, the truly independent black man.

At the remove of nearly forty years, when boxing has become a marginal event
in American life, all this symbol-mongering heaped on the shoulders of two men
belting each other in a ring for money seems faintly ridiculous. But for
decades, boxing had been a central spectacle in America, and because it is so
stripped-down, one-on-one, a battle with hands and not balls or pads or
racquets, the metaphors of struggle, of racial struggle most of all, came
easily. Ever since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title in 1908, white
boxing fans and, most of all, white promoters required a white hope. Johnson
avoided the black contenders of his era--Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, Sam
McVey. Instead, his fight was against a Caucasian retiree, the former champion
Jim Jeffries. Until late in his career, all of Joe Louis's leading opponents
were white:

Schmeling, Billy Conn, Tony Galento. Sugar Ray Robinson fought one white after
another--Bobo Olson, Paul Pender, Gene Fullmer, Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio;
the promoters rarely offered remotely the same money for bouts against equally
tough black challengers. With Patterson-Liston, something had changed. Both
men were black; both had grown up with the same hero (Joe Louis), and with
similar deprivations and injuries. The narrative of boxing, however, requires
an opposition as broad as slapstick. A fight between two members of the same
ethnic group has always required a level of differentiation. When John L.
Sullivan, the first modern heavyweight champion, defended his bareknuckle
title in 1889 against Jake Kilrain, Sullivan was required to play the bad
Irish immigrant who drank and took lots of women to bed while Kilrain was the
good immigrant, the virtuous worker. Until Patterson-Liston, the press did not
bother much with drawing differences between blacks.

Now the symbolic differences between the two fighters were obvious, and the
resulting pressures on Patterson, especially, were making his life impossible.
Patterson's fear was evident even in his carriage at the weigh-in, a ritual
that has always required of fighters a molten stare or, at least, a chilling
equanimity. But as Liston glared at Patterson, Patterson stared at his own
feet. He never stared at an opponent before a fight. Couldn't risk it. After
all, he said, "we're going to fight, which isn't a nice thing." Once, as an
amateur, he made the mistake of looking his opponent in the eye and he saw
that he had a nice face and the two fighters smiled at each other. From then
on Patterson looked at the floor. Except now he had real reason to worry.
Sonny Liston wanted to run a truck over him, and he felt if he let it happen
he would have failed his family, his country, his president, and his race.

"I kept thinking about these things right up until the fight," Patterson said
later. "When the bell rang and I came out, instead of seeing Liston, I seemed
to have a vision of all these people; what they told me and wanted me to do.
All I can remember is that I wasn't able to think of the fight at all."

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