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'He didn’t become a fully formed human being until his heavyweight title was stripped away'

Legendary American sportswriter Robert Lipsyte discusses Muhammad Ali on this week’s edition of Behind the Lines.

Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali.
Image: DPA/PA Images

Updated Jun 23rd 2020, 12:00 PM

IT’S 18 FEBRUARY 1964 in Miami’s dingy 5th Street Gym, and five visitors have accidentally come together in an upstairs dressing room. 

Robert Lipsyte is there for the New York Times because the paper’s regular boxing writer considered the whole event beneath him, and plus, he had a girlfriend working at a racetrack and would prefer to spend a few more days on the racing beat, thank you very much. 

Lipsyte is sitting in a dressing room with a band busy stomping the ground and banging the walls in juvenile agitation. They are in Miami for a photo-op with the heavyweight champ, but the champ refused to pose with “them sissies”, having seen them on the Ed Sullivan Show and decided that “my dog plays drums better than the kid with the big nose.” 

And so they’ve been shepherded for a meeting with the challenger instead, and now even he was keeping them waiting. 

“Let us the fuck out of here!”

“That stupid wanker is going to get knocked out in the first round!” 

Lipsyte figured he’d collect a couple of quotes and introduced himself in grand, stentorian voice.

“Hi, I’m Robert Lipsyte WithTheNewYorkTimes.”

“Hi, I’m Ringo”, said John. 

“Hi, I’m George”, said Ringo. 

Around 15 minutes later, the door swung open and the challenger swaggered in, broad shoulders hardly fitting through the frame. 

“C’mon, Beatles” said Cassius Clay, “Let’s go make some money!” 

John, Paul, George, and Ringo kidded around with Clay for the cameras for 10 minutes, responding in obedient chorus to Clay’s shouts of “Who’s the greatest?” 

“You are!” 

Later, when Clay was back upstairs getting a rubdown, he beckoned Lipsyte over. 

“You were in the dressing room with those guys? Tell me, who were those sissies?” 

Soon those sissies would be the most famous band on the planet, Sonny Liston would be another former champ, Cassius Clay would be Muhammad Ali and Robert Lipsyte would have the most important story of his career. 

“I think that was the first day of the 1960s. That’s when the ’60s truly began”, laughs Lipsyte today. 

Lipsyte is speaking to The42 from the basement of his home near Long Island, as a guest on the latest edition of Behind the Lines

(The show is exclusive to members of The42, so to gain access to this and a 33-episode back catalogue, go to 

In the beginning, the 22-year-old Cassius Clay offended staid sensitivities just as The Beatles did. 

“Clay is part of the Beatle movement”, wrote dyspeptic and veteran sports columnist Jimmy Cannon, “He fits in with the whole pampered style-making cult of the bored young.” 

Lipsyte, in contrast, was the same age as the man who became Muhammad Ali, and says while he might not have been the right reporter to cover the nuances and mechanics of the fights, he was the right reporter to cover the man. 

“I was of his age and of his politics. It was disruptive. I had recently written a book with a black activist comedian called Dick Gregory, and the title of the book was ‘N****r. That was disruptive, so my relationship with Ali was political as well as athletic.” 

(Gregory explained that bracing book title to his mother, saying every racist who threw that word at her from then on would just be advertising his book.) 

Lipsyte was present for the moment most people believe Ali became directly political, when he discovered he could be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. 

Not that this was the instant process it’s sometimes thought to be. 

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Lipsyte was sitting with Ali on the lawn of a rented Miami bungalow when the phone rang to tell Ali his draft status had been changed to 1A, which meant he was available to be drafted. 

Hours later Ali was either a hero or a villain, cases supported by an enduring – and slightly refined – quote.

I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

“In tracing that day, he’s not so heroic”, recalls Lipsyte. 

“He wasn’t going to be drafted immediately, but in his imagination they were going to snatch him off the street and put him into the army.”

Members of the Nation of Islam arrived, and then the press pack swelled.

“His first response to all of this was, ‘Hey, there are so many poor boys, why don’t they draft them? Heavyweight Champion of the world, think of the taxes I pay! The taxes buy tanks and helmets and guns, the army need my taxes!’

“This might be logical, but it was certainly not heroic. This went on and on for hours as more press arrived, and the questions got nastier.

“‘So, uhm, Cassius, sorry, I mean champ, sorry, Muhammad’ – they still wouldn’t call him by his rightful name.

“‘Do you even know where Vietnam is?’ 

“‘How do you feel about going all that way, and shooting the Viet Cong?

“Later in the day, after the thousandth time that question was asked, he blurts out, ‘I got nothing against them Viet Cong’, and it’s as if the world stopped and everyone wrote that down.

“That became the headline, and that’s what he was attacked for.

“I was still there at the time and thinking it wasn’t all that important as I’d heard the build-up and I realised he was just exasperated and frustrated and pissed off at all these questions and just blurted something out.

“To everybody else, it was the statement. On the basis of that statement alone, he became a hero and he became a villain.”

Capture Robert Lipsyte.

America, says Lipsyte, is desperate to draw heroes and villains to confirm its points of view, and thus Ali was instantly cast in those terms as he became the perfect symbol for both sides of the fraught Vietnam debate. 

“The feeling still existed that rich negroes – as African-Americans were called when they weren’t called worse – should be grateful for the bounty of America. Add to that, how could someone who makes his living in an aggressive way, as a fighter, then refuse to fight for his country? So he was a villain, ungrateful and betraying the country.

“On the other hand, so many young people desperate not to be drafted and killed in Vietnam saw him as a justification. ‘So here is Mr. Man, Heavyweight Champ of the world, the most physically powerful man on the planet, and he doesn’t want to join the army. So I’m not such a coward not to want to join it.’” 

Ali initially stood between the valourising and the derision.  

“His anti-war activism was totally idiosyncratic and had to do with the fact the Nation of Islam were conscientious objectors”, says Lipsyte. 

“He didn’t really become a fully formed human being, I don’t think, until his heavyweight title was stripped away because he refused to go into the army”, says Lipsyte.

“The only way he could make a living was going to college campuses and giving speeches.

“I went to a number of those speeches over the three years of his exile, and they changed radically from the boring dogma of his splinter group to a really informed understanding, where he could actually say, ‘I don’t want to be a black man sent by white men to kill brown men thousands of miles away.’

In answering the questions of college students who talked to him after his speeches, he slowly began his education of the world. Remember, this was a barely literate kid from a segregated high school in the South. He did not do too much other than box from the age of 12. He came to understand an education late. He was very smart but he was ignorant, and slowly grew into this character that has been beatified today. 

“I think he was divided in himself. He didn’t really understand at that moment just what it meant to be this hero and villain. It was exciting, he loved the attention and loved the idea that people were asking him questions as if he were a senator, but it wasn’t until those three years of travelling to college campus, and being asked questions he had to learn the answers to, that he really evolved to someone who understood.

“Then it wasn’t too many years later that he was silenced, the cruel disease that froze him and shut him down. There were so many years in which he was silenced. It’s too bad, it would have been interesting to see what he would have had to say.” 

All kinds of heroism have to be practiced and learned. 

Listen to the full interview with Robert Lipsyte by subscribing here. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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