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