Sports Nut

Muhammad Ali Was Not a Saint, and He Was Not a Teddy Bear

An interview with Robert Lipsyte on the fighter’s opposition to Vietnam, his sense of humor, and the time his trailer shook during a conjugal visit.

Former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (left) and titleholder George Foreman (right) fight on Oct. 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, during their world heavyweight championship match.

AFP/Getty Images

In 1964, a young New York Times sports writer named Robert Lipsyte was assigned to cover, as he later put it, “the dismemberment” of the fighter then known as Cassius Clay at the hands of heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. After Clay shocked the world, Lipsyte covered the boxer for the next three years as he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and helped redefine sports in American society. And Lipsyte continued to write about Ali through his death on Friday. “An agile mind, a buoyant personality, a brash self-confidence and an evolving set of personal convictions fostered a magnetism that the ring alone could not contain,” Lipsyte writes in his obituary of Ali in the Times. “He entertained as much with his mouth as with his fists, narrating his life with a patter of inventive doggerel.”

The day after Ali’s death, Lipsyte joined Stefan Fatsis and Josh Levin on a special episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen.

Among the topics they discussed: Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam war, the fighter’s warmth and sense of humor, and the time Lipsyte saw Ali’s trailer shaking during a conjugal visit. A transcript of their conversation is below. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Robert Lipsyte: I’ve been getting all these condolence calls, and I don’t think we need to mourn. I think we need to celebrate what he once was, which really was the most interesting and spectacular sports figure that any of us have ever even thought about. And most importantly, what I want to do here is remind people that he’s not the secular saint and this kind of beatified teddy bear that people have been making him out to be in the last few years. He was a very controversial, very scary, very paradoxical, very interesting character who in his time kind of epitomized the splits in America.

The thing that really makes me totally angry right now, are the stories coming out about Ali as this noted civil rights activist. If anything, early on when he first rose to prominence, he was the anti–civil rights activist. We were kind of appalled—most of us were young liberal reporters who were really interested in this story—were integrationists. And here he came out of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, what we called the Black Muslims, who were making deals with the KKK and really wanted to segregate themselves from American society.

Josh Levin: We’re all thinking about how we take the full measure of a man who was such a towering figure in American history. When you’re given the task by the Times of writing his obituary, how do you take that on? How do you decide what to focus on and what you don’t have room to include?

Lipsyte: I had no expectations when I went down to Miami Beach [to cover the Ali-Liston fight in 1964]. He was going to get beaten, and we knew he was going to get beaten because I was sent down. If they thought he had a chance they would’ve sent a real reporter. So they send the kid down, I have no expectations. I’m not a boxing writer, I’m a feature writer. I’m a couple of years older than he is. I’m thrilled to be there. And that was the basis for the next—Jesus—for the next 52 years of covering him. The idea that I was evolving, he was evolving. And the measure of the man is his evolution from this barely literate, clownish prodigy into something of a thoughtful, complex human being. That was an interesting progression, to watch it happen.

Stefan Fatsis: It really is striking that Ali’s life can be compartmentalized in certain ways. There were those early years when you stumbled into Florida and covered his brash rise to become heavyweight champion. And then there is the comedown, his getting barred from boxing, his opposition to Vietnam, the change from this crazy, fast-talking young boxer into this symbol. Then the return, when he’s still a successful boxer, winning the heavyweight title twice more, but he’s not the fast, unstoppable force in the ring that he was. And then he boxes too long, until he’s damn near 40, and very quickly soon after becomes ill, and the symptoms are clear, and he transitions into this cuddly, lovable humanitarian. It’s a remarkable arc of a life.

Lipsyte: Absolutely—those are the chapters of that arc. And yet, within those changes and most important the change in how Ali was perceived, there was always that humor. That humor never left. Dave Anderson wrote about the twinkle in his eye. Even towards the end when he was virtually mute, you would come away from 10 minutes in his presence thinking you just had this warm conversation, where no real word was passed that could be understood. And yet there was this sense of warmth, his own body language, maybe the way he reached and hugged you or touched you—you really felt this constant human connection.

Beginning to end, his most important legacy was that he made us braver. In the beginning, as an amazing symbol, a young black man to young white men who didn’t want to go into the Army, to people standing up for their principles against a government that was on a very wrong and illegitimate path. And then at the end, I always felt his finest hour in making us braver was as a symbol of the gallant patient. He never went and hid until he really was immobile. He was out there, he was brave, he showed us that he would do as much as he could despite his infirmity.

I cried in 1996 when he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta. His whole body, his arm, his hand were shaking. And later somebody told me that some hot wax from the torch had flowed down and burnt his hand. He refused to flinch. He didn’t want to show anybody that something bad had happened.

This is a little crude, but in some ways I always think of him as that door of the refrigerator on which we put magnets, notes to ourselves, little sayings, tiny bumper stickers. He was somebody that we could use for our wants and needs. He became the symbols that we wanted and needed because he himself, other than standing firm and being tough and not quitting, he didn’t really have strong and specific principles, attitudes, political stances. He was just a walking hug.

Levin: Before he became a symbol, he was a boxer. I’d love to hear you describe what it was like to watch him fight—what the feeling was like in the arena.

Lipsyte: One of the reasons that the older reporters were antagonistic to him, besides the fact that he wasn’t laconic like Joe Louis, their beau ideal, was the unorthodoxy of his style. What he did was very risky, and it was only possible because of his incredible speed and coordination. There was always the sense that he was going to get tagged, that he was going to get hit really hard. Instead of moving from side to side and letting punches go over his shoulders harmlessly, he leaned back, with always the possibility that his opponent would take that one step forward and hit him again as he was leaning back, and knock him into the ropes and then down to the canvas. And early on, the terrific speed, that movement, that dance. It was exciting to watch.

Also, later on when he’d lost a lot of that speed, we underestimated—because he seemed like a quick and flashy boxer—his ability and willingness to take punishment. He took a lot of punishment. He got hit hard. One of the reasons that worked, and eventually to his detriment, was that he allowed sparring partners to hit him in the gym. This is kind of rare among champions. It toughened him up. It also as we know began those endless insults to his brain that ended up in a kind of trauma that probably contributed to the Parkinson’s.

Levin: There’s a story you tell about interviewing Ali in a trailer. There are three women in there, then two of them leave, then the trailer starts shaking.

Lipsyte: His sexual exploits I think were beyond legend. I couldn’t understand how Ali could have so many sexual dalliances in the same day. The screenwriter Ring Lardner, who wrote the screenplay based on his book The Greatest, explained that Ali didn’t allow himself to come to climax, because he felt that it was really important that he could at least give some sort of service to as many women as possible. To him, it was like giving autographs.

The particular time that you’re talking about, he brought three women into this trailer, sent two out, a few minutes later the trailer began to shake. There were lots of people standing around the trailer, because he had just fought an exhibition match in a field in Florida. I remember his handlers and Angelo Dundee, his trainer, everybody saw me standing there writing notes in my notebook, and they said, “This is off the record. It didn’t happen.” I said, “Well, it’s happening in front of hundreds of people, how can it not happen?” They said, “If you write it in the New York Times, you will lose access and you will never be able to talk to Muhammad Ali again.”

I kind of thought about it, and I felt really sad about it, but you know, what can you do? It’s not as if I was the only one in the world who saw it. It was a public event. So I wrote it. It was the end of a piece in the New York Times Magazine, and I just kind of described the scene. I think I may even have kind of flounced it up by saying that the trailer had shaken like Emma Bovary in her carriage with her lover going around the park. The story’s title, which I did not write, was “King of All Kings.”

So now it’s six months later, and I understand that Ali’s not going to talk to me, but I’m sent down to do a piece on Ali on set for The Greatest. I know on a movie set there are lots of people who will talk to me even if the hero doesn’t—no problem. So I go on the set, and the first thing I hear is this yell: “Bob!” And it’s Ali running over to me. He gives me a big hug and he smiles and he said, “King of all kings. Boy, you got that right.”

Fatsis: How do you think Ali came to be this representation of so many different things in American culture—race, class, religion, goodness, badness, braggadocio, the rise of what you called Sportsworld—and how did he come out as the benighted, beloved figure for the 20th century?

Lipsyte: Think of the moment of creation. One, here is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. The Beatles also thought so, and so do millions of other people. Here’s this absolutely gorgeous human being. He’s warm, he’s funny, he’s totally lovable, and then he delivers his boast. Wow, we go for that in America. And what is his boast? That he is the toughest man on the planet. In 1964 remember, the heavyweight championship really still mattered in America. So here’s the heavyweight championship going to the most beautiful man on the planet, this lovable braggart—who now we know is not a braggart because he’s telling the truth—and then suddenly, he becomes involved in the most important issues in American life. No. 1, most important: race. No. 2, this war that’s splitting us apart. And No. 3, he steps out of the primary religion in America. He’s an apostate. He becomes a Muslim. We don’t even know what a Muslim was, most of us, at that time.

From that amazing explosive beginning, he just kind of grew and grew and grew. And people loved him and hated him and misunderstood him willfully. As long as he could keep going, as long as he could keep that flame alive, and thanks to Howard Cosell he even kept that flame alive during that three-and-a-half years where he was not boxing. And then he comes out on the other end, he returns to us, and we really appreciate him because No. 1, he’s made the sacrifice that we really understand in America—he gave up millions and millions of dollars for his principle. And No. 2, he went through this blood redemption where he really got punished and beaten hard to prove himself as a man against his toughest opponent, Joe Frazier. So by that time, I think he’s totally locked into our minds.

And a whole generation of young, white American boys—and the girls and mothers who loved them—really loved him because he took away the stigma of not wanting to serve your country, of being a “draft dodger.” Because this incredible, principled, beautiful man, who could have had an easy job in the Army, who gave up millions of dollars, who stood firm, kind of hung manhood on everybody else.

It was amazing into the ‘80s and ‘90s, sitting with him in restaurants and having men of his age, now late middle age, come up to him with tears in their eyes and thanking him. They’re not thanking him for being heavyweight champion, they’re thanking him for making them feel principled and like men, too. The attitude of the country had changed around the Vietnam War, he’d moved to a more orthodox form of Islam, he’s certainly not a segregationist anymore. He’s obviously a hero, and he’s easier to take now. He’s not dogmatic, and as he becomes more and more infirm, he becomes less and less threatening. And that past, in which he really did antagonize so many people, all that recedes. What’s left is this man who is famous for being famous.

I go into high schools for my young adult novels, and it’s kind of heartbreaking—I have to explain who Muhammad Ali is. “Oh, he’s that old, sick boxer.” No, he’s not an old sick boxer! He’s symbolic of the last 50 years of American life.

Fatsis: A lot of people didn’t like Muhammad Ali. The government certainly was looking at Ali in the ‘60s. He was a counterculture figure. He didn’t embody, for many people, progress in America. He was a threat to America.

Lipsyte: They were afraid of him because as it was getting harder and harder to get troops to Vietnam, there was always a feeling that, what happens once minority boys refuse to serve? Which really meant the government didn’t really understand American people, if they thought that this guy was going to keep people out of the Army, which of course he never did. And also the early involvement with Malcom X, that scared [the government].

And then there were a lot of “patriotic people” who thought, how can you refuse to fight [for] your country and you’re willing to go and beat up other boys? I’d been in the Army by that time, and I wasn’t totally immune from that feeling myself. I was against the war, sure, and I was for the protests and everything like that, but there was something ambivalent in my attitude—I hadn’t quite worked it out yet—toward his conscientious objection. And a lot of people were very angry about that. If I had my qualms, and I was invested in him, you can imagine how a lot of other people felt.

Levin: Was there a single moment—a quiet one or a loud one—where you were in Ali’s presence and felt, OK, I’m getting the real guy, this is the real Ali.

Lipsyte: Yeah, there were a lot of moments like that. I remember one of them, we were rushing to a plane in an airport. I really wanted to make the flight and get home. As we’re rushing, a small older woman stood in front of us with one of those throwaway cameras, and he stopped and he posed. She took the picture. I grabbed his arm—come on, come on, let’s go. “Wait,” he said. “She had the lens cap on.”

He reached over and very delicately took off the lens cap and posed again, took the picture. He said, “She would have felt bad the rest of her life that she didn’t get that picture.” I said, “Yeah but we’re going to miss the plane.” He said, “We’re not going to miss the plane. They’ve got to wait for me.” And they did. Then we got to the plane and he said, “Sit by me, Bob.” And I said, “Well, I can’t. I have an economy-class ticket. You have a first-class ticket.” He said, “Sit by me. I’m the champ. They’ll let you sit there.” And they did.

In some strange sort of way, I keep thinking about that. This enormous kindness, this incredible narcissism, and also this sense of who he was and what other people thought of him. It’s a very small moment but it meant a lot to me.

Read more from Slate on Muhammad Ali.