Arts and Culture

Numerous books have been published over the decades about Muhammad Ali, who will be laid to rest this week in his hometown of Louisville.

One of the most highly praised works was published in 1998. It’s called “King of the World,” written by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. It chronicles Ali’s rise from boxer to world icon and the people who influenced him.

In an essay published Saturday, Remnick reflected on Ali’s childhood, growing up poor in Louisville.

Louisville, when Cassius was growing up in the nineteen-forties and fifties, was a Jim Crow city. American apartheid. Not quite as virulent as in Jackson or Mobile, but plenty bad. At movie theatres like the Savoy, whites sat in the orchestra, blacks in the balcony; most other theatres were for whites only, and so were the stores downtown. There were white schools, white country clubs, white businesses. Blyden Jackson, a black writer from Louisville, who was in his forties when Clay was growing up, wrote, “On my side of the veil everything was black: the homes, the people, the churches, the schools, the Negro park with Negro park police. . . . There were two Louisvilles and, in America, two Americas.” It was a childhood in which Cassius saw his mother turned away for a drink of water at a luncheonette after a hard day of cleaning the floors and toilets of white families. These were daily scenes, the racial arrangements of Louisville.

I spoke with Remnick about his recollections of Ali and about his book. Listen to our conversation in the audio player above or read a portion of it below.

Howlett: We knew this day would come, but it still feels like a shock, doesn’t it?

Remnick: Well, it comes for all of us, and yet we’ve been waiting for it unfortunately with Muhammad for quite a long time. My father had the same disease. And the end came in the same way. Its sections just catch up with you, and finally things shut down. I really am confident, though, that in the end people will remember the whole of Muhammad Ali, which is to say: the fighter, the human rights campaigner, the incredibly brave man, in the ring and out of the ring, and also the way he comported himself as he declined. All of it is part of the story. All of it is part of what we should take inspiration from.

You were able to spend some time with him. What was he like?

I’m not of the generation that, you know, covered his glory years. I went to do a book called “King of the World” on him. But it was mainly a historical book, and when I came to see him in Berrien Springs, Michigan, which is not far from Notre Dame, he was already in steep decline, and sitting there for hours with him, maybe a few paragraphs of back and forth occurred. He’d fall asleep a little bit, he’d get tired. But nevertheless, he made his points.

One of the points he wanted make was how much he regretted spurning Malcolm X, who had been his great friend and mentor. He also wanted to make a point of what a great fighter he had been. I was there shortly before a Tyson fight. Let’s just say he was pretty dismissive of Mike Tyson. So there was a lot left to him as well, but I was not with him in his vital times.

There have been many questions over the years about what happened to Ali’s Olympic gold medal. You addressed that in your book, didn’t you?

Yeah, that was a baloney story. He had claimed — you know, I think he liked the kind of folkloric aspect of his own story, and he claimed in many interviews and even in his own autobiography, which is really part fiction, that he had thrown his gold medal into the water out of a sense of anger (about being denied service at a Louisville restaurant). In fact, he sooner or later admitted that he had lost it or it got stolen.

Do you have a favorite Ali fight?

Well, the most classic — you know, if you want to watch him, and wonderfully these are all on YouTube, if you want to watch him at his zenith, at his pure level of dominance, you watch him against Zora Folley or Cleveland Williams. This is before the exile. And of course the way he used speed to beat Liston the first time is amazing.

But to me, the third fight against Frazier in Manila — and then of course the fight in Zaire — are just magnificent in different ways. Against Foreman, it’s magnificent in a tactical way. The way he used his fighting intelligence to wear Foreman down and find a way to tire him out. And then it was just a matter of time before it was over for Foreman. It was just masterful, and it’s so dramatic considering the setting.

The fight against Frazier in Manila, the third one, is just unbearably brutal. Unbearably brutal. Ali called it the closest he had ever been to death. He said that when he and Frazier came back from Manila, they came back as old men. And god knows it would have been better for everybody concerned, but particularly the participants, if they quit after that.

Rick Howlett is WFPL's Broadcast Editor and also produces feature and general assignment radio stories.