In our ASTU 100A class, we’ve taken up a wide discussions on comics, more specifically graphic novels. As a child, I wasn’t particularly social. I stayed in a lot, I wrote stories, played video games and read comics as a sort of release so to curb the tide of loneliness I experienced as a young boy. One of the other things I did was watch old boxing videos such as Sonny Liston and most notably Cassius Clay. I looked up to these men as an aspiration but also I admired their morals and the lives they led that defined them.
Recently, I finished reading King of the World by David Remnick, which functions as a biography of Cassius Clay. It functions as a modern tome of boxing as the opening chapters aren’t about Clay but about previous boxers who came before him. I refuse to spoil a good book, while the major events of Clay’s life are widely known, I found it particularly curious as to why Remnick includes a look at the major boxers in the heavyweight category. It was assumed on my first read through that his inclusion of Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston functioned merely as a a historical rhetoric to understand the evolution of modern boxing itself. In a biography about the man who redefined boxing I wondered about why he should be included. However, on my second glance, it functioned as more than that.
The inclusion of the two men in a biography about Clay served a socio-cultural function. Effectively, the three boxers represented three separate varieties of African American men present in an racially fuelled sport. Patterson, served as the “white man’s boxer” or a man who was a liberal’s liberal as written in such a way that gave Patterson the definite upper hand on Liston, not physically, but morally. Liston was written in such publications as a brute, a smoker and the archetypal “Negro” who was demonized by the press in the many years following the Patterson-Liston match up. LeRoi Jones, a poet based in Greenwich Village described Liston as “the big, black Negro inn every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him him in” (Remnick 24). Patterson, while still black elicited no response such as this due to his stance as the white man’s boxer; he exhibited no threat to the establishment due to his stance as simply another black man, but an emasculated one who was funded by white financial backers. However, Liston represented the Negro that no one desired. He was a thug, unable to read a proper sentence and funded largely in part to Mob money. Remnick includes them in this biography because at the time, Black boxing was relatively new, and since the dictotomy couldn’t be placed between the color of ones skin, it had to be done between two ideals of the black man; one barred by influence from others and the other by his demons of his past.
However, he paints Clay in a completely different style than the other two. Remnick portrays Clay as the hardest working boxer, who abstained from all that could hurt his progress as a fighter, and most importantly was an independent pugilist who made his own choices and was conscious of what could come his way as a high profile individual. Remnick asserts that Clay was the only one who could represent the “truly independent black man” (Remnick 24). In many ways, Clay represented originality in the boxing world. He wasn’t a man who took counsel from others who sought their own gain, and wasn’t burdened to the IRS for taxes like Liston was. He was a brilliant man who served to fight and in his own words, “show the world how great [he] is” (Ali). Clay was in many ways America’s original boxer who represented the times; progressive, conscious and ambitious. Remnick places Patterson and Liston next to Clay as a sociocultural comparison, but it also served a chronological one, where his readers can witness how far we’ve come as a society.