cover image King of the World

King of the World

David Remnick. Random House (NY), $25 (326pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50065-7

""I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong,"" Ali said in 1967 on refusing to be drafted. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and though the Supreme Court would overturn his conviction four years later, principle lost him--temporarily--his title, big bucks, the support of many admirers and the best years of his fighting life. Vietnam postdates most of New Yorker editor Remnick's (Lenin's Tomb) coverage, as he writes little about Ali in the post-Sonny Liston era. At its best, the book recalls the boxing writings of A.J. Liebling, while Remnick's frequent use of Ali's hilarious ""rapper"" doggerel adds to the melancholy humor through which he describes the Louisville kid who beat gambling odds on the way to the heavyweight title but couldn't beat the medical odds. ""The history of [prize] fighters,"" Remnick writes, ""is the history of men who end up damaged."" Only in his middle 50s, the once graceful Ali, last seen worldwide clutching the Atlanta Olympic torch in a trembling hand, is disabled by degenerative Parkinson's disease. To many, though, he was disabled even earlier by his conversion to Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, which, whatever its controversial separatist image, ""orders [Ali's] life and helps him cope with his illness,"" according to Remnick. The author smartly records Ali's defiant besting of adversaries in and out of the ring and shows him to be a champion human being. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Nov.)