MORE THAN A CHAMPION: The Style of Muhammad Ali by Jan Philipp Reemtsma

MORE THAN A CHAMPION: The Style of Muhammad Ali

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Reemtsma is a philologist by training, a boxing buff by avocation, and the director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research; as might be expected, he has a big agenda in this slender book. The author strives to give an intellectual pedigree to his subject from the outset, invoking Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bertrand Russell as ostensible aficionados of Ali's arcane art. The book opens with, and is framed by, a series of vignettes drawn from Ali's epic 1975 battle with Joe Frazier, the ""Thrilla in Manila,"" a fight that essentially cut short both boxers' careers with its relentless savagery. With that framing device in place, Reemtsma essentially offers a series of interlocking essays on Ali's life, his defeats, his victories, and the ways in which the five ""Rocky"" movies reflect America's (or at least Sylvester Stallone's) uneasy relationship with Ali. Very little of this is new, and one reads this far wondering exactly why a distinguished European intellectual is so preoccupied with telling us a great deal that any ordinary boxing fan already knows. A lengthy quote from Norman Mailer's The Fight also reminds the reader of how much better a real writer/fan can describe what goes on in the ring. But in the dozen pages of the book's epilogue, Reemtsma reveals his agenda at long last: He sees Ali's boxing style with its unusual combination of ""dominance and variability"" as the avatar of a late-20th-century phenomenon, a personality that is a cross between ""the dissociated individual"" and its anti-type, ""the megalomaniac."" Despite the book's brevity, it still seems a long way to travel for such a meager insight. As the old saying goes, what's good here isn't original, and what's original isn't good.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1998
ISBN: 030748100X
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Knopf