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How Muhammad Ali Woke Up Sportswriters

The boxing legend transformed “them” into “us”

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Muhammad Ali, who died Friday, may be the most important figure in the history of sportswriting. Grantland, Red, Jimmy, Bob — they’re all ranked contenders. Ali feels like the champ.

How can that be? Ali never wrote a gamer (even if he had plenty of hot takes). Well, during the ’60s and ’70s, when he was cutting a path through the prize ring, Ali also served as a kind of national assignment editor. Under his tutelage, the sports page changed. Funny columnists became righteous columnists, reactionaries became civil-rights champions, and the craft became, briefly, a real beat. Ali became national copy chief, too — his pencil slicing through “Cassius Clay” and writing in his Muslim name.

Once, the old Newark Star-Ledger columnist Jerry Izenberg tried to explain to me how Ali had changed the men who covered him. “He gave us a reason to become what we wanted to become,” Izenberg said.

And what did you want to become? I asked.

“The righter of all wrongs.”

A sportswriter celebrates an athlete, criticizes an athlete, or lifts his hood for inspection. Here, the athlete transformed the sportswriters, reaching through the ring ropes and lifting them off press row. By 1999, when The Best American Sports Writing of the Century was published, it had a whole section devoted to “The One and Only.”

You could write a master’s thesis about this. But let’s focus on a few moments.

In 1964, Bob Lipsyte, a 26-year-old feature writer, got sent to Miami to cover the Ali–Sonny Liston heavyweight title fight. (The New York Times thought the fight would be a dud, unworthy of its regular boxing writer.) As he settled in, Lipsyte noticed something: The older writers — Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young — were hewing close to Liston. They “resented the casual way [Ali] treated them,” Lipsyte wrote later, “his cheery disrespect for their importance.”

This was the first way Ali bent the trajectory of sportswriting: He drew a line of demarcation between Them (old, reactionary, suspicious-of-loudmouth athletes) and Us (young, hip, all ears).

A lot of athletes did that. Joe Namath did that. But Ali’s accomplishment was more significant. For instance, here’s Red Smith — one of Them — writing in 1966, when Ali was resisting the draft:

“Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war. Yet in this country they are free to speak their alleged minds, and so is he.”

By 1980, Ali had returned from exile to twice recapture the heavyweight title. He had triumphed before the Supreme Court. He had won, through swagger and charisma, a kind of moral victory on the cards. And Smith was writing this: “No other athlete in any sport, not Pelé in soccer or Babe Ruth in baseball, ever did more for his game than this man did for boxing.”

This was not your typical sports freak-out when everyone publishes their take and readies for Round 2. Ali’s trick was that, after a time, he was able to drag nearly every one of those old guys over to his side. On the sports page, Ali created a national Us.

Another moment, still in Miami. After beating Liston and winning the heavyweight title, Ali held a press conference. His voice was so soft he could barely be heard, The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich reported. “I don’t have to talk anymore,” Ali said. “All I have to do is be a nice, clean gentleman.”

The older writers thought that was fine. They left the presser and wrote it up. The younger writers stuck around. They wanted to ask about the Muslim theology Ali had been peddling before the fight.

“Listen,” Ali said. “In the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers with tigers, and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds. That’s human nature, too, to be with your own kind. I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted.”

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he said. “I’m free to be who I want.”

For a sportswriter, the words must have been breathtaking to hear. In the ’60s, it was near impossible to get weighty subjects onto the sports page. Yet here was the heavyweight champ, age 22, saying he was a vessel for Muslim theology. For civil rights. Later, he would expand the CV to encompass the Vietnam War and what it means to be an American. One of Lipsyte’s subsequent pieces in The New York Times was an interview with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. What could his editor say? Everything was fair game.

A lot of rebel athletes have staked their claim to history only to fizzle after a few columns and a Sports Illustrated cover. Ali’s lasting influence over sportswriters was due to two factors: He was a truly great, fearsome boxer. And, second, he loved furnishing writers with material.

“[Y]ou couldn’t get off the phone with him, even if the deadline was bearing down,” noted Tom Callahan, who wrote for Time and other outlets. “You’d hand the receiver to your wife, write the story, and come back into the room two hours later and find them still talking.”

When Ali saw Callahan on the road, he’d say, “I like her better than you.”

After Ali won the title in ’64, the Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray and two other journalists found him later than night, lying on a couch in white shorts. “I’m the champ now and God wants me to be champ,” he said. “If it wasn’t God, now who was it?”

In 1968, Lipsyte was walking down Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco when a car pulled up behind him. Three men jumped out and yanked him inside. “You fast and you pretty,” Ali told Lipsyte, after he’d been accosted, “but if you thought you could get away from me you would apologize.”

It became a mark of distinction to be kidnapped by Ali. He attracted slumming literary figures like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who, in turn, helped create the category of the highly literate sports book, from Mailer’s The Fight to David Remnick’s King of the World. (No single athlete has sired more book contracts.) At the Rumble in the Jungle, in 1974, Ali went into his rope-a-dope and the celebrity types started screaming to stop the fight — Ali would be killed. Vic Ziegel, then of the New York Post, said, “These guys are idiots.”

Ali’s final redirection of sportswriting came, oddly, when he could barely speak. “Is boxing moral?” was a big enough question for any athlete’s career. For Ali, it was merely the last question. He gave those writers who had celebrated boxing, who had used the sport to get on the front page, the most powerful and emotional argument against it.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Everyone had a moment when they winced at Ali’s decline. Lipsyte saw him in 1986, before a TV interview, soaking his feet in water while massaging devices worked him over. Perhaps they were trying to restore sensation. Others noticed that during Ali’s last triumph on the national stage, when he lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics, he nearly burned himself. Jim Murray observed:

“It used to be a common sight in the lobby of fight arenas. Oldtime contenders in dark glasses could be seen selling pencils to the fans as they went in to see a new generation of youngsters risking their eyes — and their brainpans — to provide entertainment for the masses. … But Ali seemed exempt from the ordinary pitfalls of his profession. … To see him reduced to unintelligibility is as damning an indictment of the sport as it was to see Benny Paret crumpled dying in a corner.”

“Someday,” Tom Callahan wrote, “a pathologist will slice [him] open and scream.”

The poetry a writer squeezes from an athlete sounds awfully tinny if the athlete is dead or pulverized before his time. Muhammad Ali is dead at 74, and was silenced long before that. I don’t know if sportswriters turned out to be the righter of all wrongs. Maybe occasionally, between trade rumors. But Ali turned out to be a diligent editor who, even in death, still wields a mean pencil, so long as we aren’t too stupid or close to deadline to notice.