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Book News

Reviewer: Book on Ali 'interesting, but awkward'

'More Than A Champion'
by Jan Philipp Reemtsma

Alfred A. Knopf, $21

Review by Andrew Chang

Web posted on: Monday, August 31, 1998 EDT

(CNN) -- It's been said that there have been plenty of champions since Muhammad Ali, but there have been none like him.

And people have given many reasons for this unique legacy -- Ali's style, grace, appearance -- but Jan Phillipp Reemtsma has a new reason in his "More Than a Champion: The Style of Muhammad Ali".

He says Ali was special because he could straddle two identities -- the megalomaniac and the adaptable modern man.

It's an interesting argument, but the author's awkward structuring of his book doesn't do anything to communicate it well.

Reemtsma -- the director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research -- doesn't explain his ideas about Ali until his last chapter. Instead, his previous ten chapters are presumably designed to lead us to his conclusion.

The problem is, his ideas are presented subtlety and come across as seemingly aimless, so it requires multiple readings to understand his argument.

The chapters alternate between round-by-round accounts of Ali's fight against Joe Frazier in Manila in 1975, and more introspective chapters on the history and legend of "the greatest."

They are meant to reflect one another. A chapter entitled "Manila, IV-VI," recounts a waning Ali in rounds four to eight in Manila, and is followed by a chapter on Ali's losses called "Defeats."

But it is hard to make the connection, especially when Reemtsma throws in episodes of literary deconstruction and oblique references that compare Ali to figures like Hannibal and Emperor Diocletian.

The author's worst offense is when he digresses to explain how the Ali myth inspired the series of "Rocky" films. Reemtsma devotes pages to detailing the films, often without telling us how they're relevant to Ali.

Then, when Reemtsma does tell us how Ali reflects on the films, he often has to resort to some contortions in logic. This is because "Rocky" grew from one film, paralleling Ali, into a series that could have easily outgrown the original inspiration.

Ironically, it's when Reemtsma recounts the champ's history that we finally get closer to the reason for this book. It's not hard to see why Ali was "more than a champion" in the author's accounts of his rise to championship, from the brash, loud-mouthed villain to the poetic hero we know today.

The alternating chapters which describe the blow-by-blow, round-by-round "Thriller in Manila" also read with the excitement of seeing the grand fight for the first time.

Reemtsma also deserves some praise for his attempt to find something new about what made "the Greatest," but he could have recounted what we know made Ali great: His technical expertise.

Andrew Chang works at CNN Headline News.

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