muhammad ali

Muhammad Ali: “not a countercultural hero sprung from the loins of Jesus”

And other insights from renowned journalist Robert Lipsyte, who knew Ali for 55 years.


Of all the obituaries which have run this week about the singular life of Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest belongs to a New York Times writer who knew Ali for decades.

Below is an interview between that writer, Robert Lipsyte, and preeminent sports commentator Dave Zirin on Edge of Sports. The below, Part 1 of 2, is lightly edited and condensed.

…You’ve been associated with Muhammad Ali, I was thinking about this, for 55 years almost. What have the days since his passing been like for you?

Robert Lipsyte: You know what’s interesting, Dave, I’ve gotten hundreds of emails since the obit ran and I would say the overwhelming number of them are offering consolation for my grieving process, and mentioning that they had spotted him once in an elevator, he had given them a hug from across the room. It’s so hard to separate the symbolic political figure that’s powerful shaper, in a sense, of our times, from this glowing human being who made these incredible little connections with almost everybody that he ever came in contact with.

Dave Zirin: Wow. What was your reaction when you heard he passed?

Robert Lipsyte: It’s been a bizarre period because it’s been so many years since we’ve really heard him and since he’s been Ali, that at first his death felt like a formality. But the grief has been so overpowering and the remembrances, it really was like the world stopped. You’re right, but it was a combination. On the one hand as far as I’m concerned, he’s not dead. The memories, the photographs, the legacy. He’s all still there.

On the other hand, whatever grieving process there was, that was over a few years ago. He hasn’t been Muhammad Ali for some time. Coming to grips with the incredible Greek tragedy, Shakespearean, I don’t know what would you call it, irony, of this most noble and loquacious man on the planet suddenly struck dumb and twisted into an immobile hulk. It’s terrible to even think about it.

That, of course, began to be quite evident 20 years ago at the ’96 Olympics where with that shaking hand he lit the torch. The hot wax flowed back, burnt him. He never winced or showed that.

We’ve seen for some time his retreat from the camera and from the public view, until he just became invisible to so many. I hadn’t seen him for several years. Even then, it was remarkable. I would try to ask him a question, he would put his mouth to my ear and mumble something that was absolutely incomprehensible, and his wife from across the room would speak for 5 minutes and tell me what he had just said.

She really became the curator of that legend. Not to make fun of that, because I thought that’s a very well structured paragraph that he could not have written at his zenith attacking Donald Trump for Trump’s suggestion that the government keep all the Muslims out was wonderful.

Dave Zirin: Can I ask you, we talk about this idea of Greek tragedy for me. I know I’m projecting my own politics onto the tragedy here, but this idea of someone who spoke so eloquently against war, finds himself unable to speak, his face an expressionless mask, being led to George W Bush who puts a medal around his neck.

This idea of does Muhammad Ali, A — Does he know what’s happening right now? B — Does he agree with what’s happening right now? And C — is there an issue of consent here in terms of him being in the White House and getting this medal from George Bush?

Robert Lipsyte: That’s a wonderful question. Also maybe goes to the heart of something you and I have talked about so many times about Muhammad Ali as this magnetic slate on which we can put our wishes, hopes, bumper stickers, on.

Who really knows? Who really knows what went on inside. Even from the very beginning, his closest biographer Tom Hauser, spend an awful lot of time with him. Probably more concentrated time than anybody in the ’90s when he was writing that big oral biography.

I always felt that Ali was stunted emotionally, that he probably had reached the level of a 12 year old. So much of what he did and said was the quick study of a somewhat innocent mind, a child-like mind. He was capable of things that we would interpret, but exactly what did they mean?

Every time you saw a man and said, knowing that I was Jewish, he would say, “What’s the difference between a Jew and a canoe?” I would pretend I didn’t know the answer, and he would say, “Oh, a canoe tips!” Well, was this a joke?” Was this a way of connecting? Was this a 12 year old? Was this a way of asserting his independence from whatever you might want him to be? I don’t know. The answer really is, yeah, you and I both wanted him to rip that medal off his neck and stick it in George’s face.

Dave Zirin: Yes.

Robert Lipsyte: But he was happy to be in the White House. He was happy to be honored, I’m sure. What did he ever mean at any point? What really makes me crazy right now are these hagiographic pieces running in which he is described as one of the leading civil rights leaders of his time.

Well, that’s not quite true. Remember when people were being beaten in the south and dogs set on them, water hose, he belongs to this segregationist black Muslims, who were trying to make deals with southern states and the KKK to carve out black enclaves until the space ships came down and all but the righteous were killed, and they were carried away to a better planet.

Dave Zirin: I agree that the hagiographies are nauseating, but isn’t what you just described part of what made him so amazing? I mean, the heavyweight champion of the world joining an organization that call white people Devils. It would be like Nancy Reagan joining the Lesbian Avengers. It’s an amazing thing.

Robert Lipsyte: Good. That’s a good one.

Dave Zirin: Thank you. That’s, to me, and I think Julian Bond — a great civil rights leader — once had this great line where he said: “We weren’t big fans of the nation of Islam, but it felt like he was telling white people to go to hell for us.”

Robert Lipsyte : Yeah, and Dick Gregory says the same thing. That’s true, and yet he was doing that. On the other hand, you could also see that, because this is a complex and wonderful and flawed human being, you could also see that this was a kid who had been abused at home, who was insecure, who really wanted a father figure, and within this group found a comfort and solace that he didn’t really find, certainly not in white America and probably even within his family.

Part of us wants to say, “Yeah! Man, he was really sticking it to the man back there in the ’60s.” And the other part as well, he was also a kid who was finding a way of insulating himself from a lot of pain, a lot of things that were going on.

Dave Zirin: When we look at all the ways that athletes over the decades have insulated themselves from pain, and drugs are certainly at the top of that list-

Robert Lipsyte : Or focusing on the next event. I mean, training hard is another way of squelching psychic pain, physical pain… Dave, let’s get back to the point of that famous day where he said, “I got nothing against them Viet Cong.” That became one of the banners of the ’60s.

Dave Zirin: You were there that day, right?

Robert Lipsyte : Yeah. That became a way of signifying what was happening. At the very beginning of that day when he was first notified that his draft exemption has been changed to 1A, which made him immediately eligible, the first thing he said, the very first thing that he said was, “Why me? I’m heavyweight champ. All my tax dollars go to the government. Look at all the tanks and guns and soldiers helmets that my tax dollars buy. Why draft me? Draft some poor boy from Louisville.” That first gut reaction was, I think, was a very human reaction, certainly in keeping with bieng a childlike heavyweight champion of the world. But it really was not, “I got nothing against them Viet Cong,” it was not an expression of solidarity with colored people around the world.

Dave Zirin: But that’s why I love these stories, and think that they’re the best defense against the hagiographic bullshit that I agree is all over the place. Because it does show an evolution of thought, because a few years later he was making lyrical statements calling for solidarity with the darker skinned people of the world and speaking about the poor in the United States and, “Rich man go to college and poor man goes to fight.”

What you said before about him being a quick study and a master of improv, I think, you see that. You also see in miniature a kind of the ’60s themselves. Like the kid who’s shocked in the early ’60s to find out he has to fight a war. By the end of the ’60s is drawing much more radical conclusions.

Robert Lipsyte: You’re absolutely right, David. I think that that’s one of the things that we have to keep right in the face of history, is the fact that he evolved. That this was not a countercultural hero sprung from the loins of Jesus. This really was somebody narrow, ignorant, poorly served by education, who really evolved into somebody who began to really understand his times. That’s absolutely true.

I think one of the ways in which that occurred was during those three and a half years in which he was not able to fight and made his money on college campuses, it was a give and take, the Q&A with college students, that he slowly began to understand the larger fabric.

By the end of that time, he was a much more evolved human being religiously, politically, socially, in every kind of a way. I mean, I think that’s really an important- because as he was evolving, so was America. That’s one of the prime reasons for his acceptance in the ’70s was the fact that so much of America had come around to his way of thinking about the war.

Also, I think that he came to feel admiration for the civil rights activists who really put their lives on the line. And also to feel some sorrow, ultimately, in his betrayal of Malcolm, which was a terrible thing. That was the beauty of Ali. Then the terrible pain and irony of him being then shut down, just at a time it would’ve been great to hear more from him.

Read the rest of the conversation, featuring talk of George Foreman and Ali’s first run-in with the Beatles, in Part 2.