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  • Muhammad Ali was difficult to cover, but he was also a reporter’s dream. Besides Ali’s vivid stories and accessibility, he helped open many sportswriters’ eyes toward a more impactful way of covering athletes.
By Ben Pickman
June 03, 2019

On Feb. 25, 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay broke free from the crowd that swarmed his ring corner and howled to those working on press row. Clay had just defeated Sonny Liston for boxing’s world heavyweight championship, a result few of the newspapermen had predicted. Sports columnists Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune and Dick Young of the New York Daily News both witnessed Clay climb “like a squirrel onto the red velvet ropes,” in Smith’s words. And they both heard Clay shout, “Eat your words. Eat your words.” “Nobody ever had a better right,” Smith wrote of the boxer’s proclamation. Cassius had made Liston look like a bull moose plodding through a swamp.” Young added: “This was Cassius Clay tasting the delicious verbal pastry of victory which he had just cooked up for himself."

The next morning, Clay declared his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and in doing so immediately became a politically polarizing figure in the United States. From that point forward, the way that Smith, Young and many of their colleagues covered Clay drastically shifted.

“The press conference was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen,” recalled Robert Lipsyte, a longtime columnist at The New York Times. “Then, after Liston, the press had no choice. We were hooked into the story and had to follow it to the end.”

With the sports press glued to Ali’s every move inside and outside the ring, Smith and Young’s columns about the boxer largely reflect an era that challenged Americans’ views of their lives and society.

The sports section was traditionally seen as the toy department of the newsroom, but coverage of the outspoken Ali often touched on subjects beyond boxing, offering a perspective on the state of race, religion and the Vietnam War in America.

Smith and Young both attended many of the same fights and operated in the same New York market as each other. They were arguably the most famous sports columnists in the country covering the world’s most famous athlete. Their styles, however, were markedly different. A number of Smith’s contemporaries regard him as one of the “best literary sportswriters ever.” His graceful prose helped him win the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in general commentary, a rarity still to this day among sportswriters. Well-known magazine and newspaper reporter Gay Talese applied to the New York Herald Tribune when he graduated from college simply because Smith was working there and he believed Red Smith wrote some of the best sentences of anybody in New York. “He was like the DiMaggio of writers,” said Bob Ryan, a longtime beat writer and columnist at the Boston Globe. “You were hesitant to even approach him, just because of his legendary stature.”

At the same time, between 1960-80, Young might have been equally well-known, if not impactful, in the sportswriting profession. He was a dogged, acerbic columnist and made entering the locker room and seeking out athletes and coaches a requirement of the job. In a 1985 Sport magazine profile, Ross Wetzsteon characterized Young’s writing style:  “Dick Young is not a writer Hallmark would hire.”

He was at one time, the most popular writer of the largest-selling newspaper in the United States. And throughout the latter part of Muhammad Ali’s career, when Young entered the fighter’s training camp, Lipsyte recalled the boxer saying, “There’s Dick Young. Baddest man in the world. He kept taking shots at me, but he’s still old enough to walk in here.”

Young and Smith were among the powerbrokers of thought in their respective communities. But their opinions on Muhammad Ali, while always opinionated and sought after, were fluid.

White struggles to maintain the status quo and the black struggle for equal access and opportunity helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And so, by 1964, combating lasting racial oppression was becoming a larger part of the public discourse.

Ali's actions and words pushed much of the sports press out of their comfort zone. His actions and words challenged Smith and Young—and by extension, the sportswriting profession—to think about the interaction of race, religion and sports in America in a significant way.

As the boxer rose in stature, an older generation of newspapermen also felt intruded upon by television’s prominence and in turn, many clashed with one of Ali’s most famous press advocates, Howard Cosell. Television pushed writers like Smith and Young to comment on issues outside the ring or they’d potentially lose the mantle of being their communities’ most relevant and insightful voices.

In recent years, the action from athletes like Colin Kaepernick has similarly galvanized conversations around the place of politics and race in sports. But Muhammad Ali’s career forced the sportswriting profession to have these conversations in the early 1960s.

In the decade before Clay emerged on the scene, sportswriters primarily viewed boxers as sources of entertainment. Print coverage rarely dealt with issues of race or class and instead detailed the happenings inside the ring. Joe Louis, “Jersey” Joe Walcott, “Sugar” Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson and dozens of others made up a group of boxers which author and editor David Remnick calls the “unthreatening black fighter.” “As an athlete, [Clay] was supposed to remain aloof from the racial and political upheaval going on around him,” Remnick wrote in his book King of the World. However, Ali would prove to be no ordinary boxer.

Ali’s impact on greater society did not truly start until after the 1964 Liston fight, when he declared his affiliation with the Nation of Islam.

“That day, I saw the birth of a new human being,” the boxer told author Thomas Hauser. “It was like Cassius Clay came to the end and Muhammad Ali emerged.”

“The day after he beat Liston and came in to announce that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, all hell broke loose,” Jerry Izenberg, a longtime columnist at the Newark Star-Ledger recalled. Clay quickly became a symbol of America under siege and sportswriters were immediately forced to engage in conversations about race, religion and the Vietnam War.

Clay, who leading up to the fight was largely covered as any other up-and-comer, faced immediate and intense backlash. Young wrote of the boxer's announcement: “He is a braggart, but that’s no crime or there wouldn’t be enough jails. The shame of it is that Clay will be used by the Black Muslims, to shill for their brand of hate-mongering.” Smith was similarly critical.

“When the country came apart in the 1960s, I could see how people like Red Smith or Dick Young could resent that,” said Dave Kindred, a longtime columnist at the Louisville Courier, Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution and author of Sound and Fury, a dual biography of Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali. “That was not the United States of America they grew up in.” But in the wake of the Liston fight, it was the America they were forced to confront.

By the mid-1960s, Ali was pushing the boundaries of the America most sportswriters were accustomed to. Sports television, led by Cosell, was also starting to intrude on the print newspaperman’s turf, forcing columnists to touch on more than just the result of last night’s baseball game or boxing match.

Cosell became a staunch advocate for Ali throughout the boxer’s polarizing career and the TV star seldom shied away from touching on issues beyond the ring.

In 1966, Young made a brief foray into TV working alongside Cosell for WABC’s football production, but by the end of the 1967 season, the sports columnist was fired. Cosell had grown up a Smith fan, but the broadcaster would eventually call Smith the “king of drollery” and “locked inside the sports establishment.”

"That’s the one thing Smith and Young agreed on,” Izenberg recalled. “They hated Howard Cosell.”

But throughout Ali’s early success, Smith and Young weren’t so much locked inside the sports establishment, but more so locked inside their versions of the nation.

In November 1965, Ali readied for a bout with Floyd Patterson. Sports Illustrated’s Gilbert Rogin wrote that Patterson viewed the prospect of knocking out Ali as a means to “bring the title back to America”—as Ali’s victory just months earlier over Sonny Liston was viewed by some, including Smith and Young, as a victory for the Black Muslims.

And so writers like Young and Smith were far from thrilled by Ali’s 12-round win. “Floyd Patterson was punished cruelly by a practicing sadist Monday night,” Smith wrote. “He speaks of the goodness and the wholesomeness of his religion, but there is no love for his fellow man in his religion and there is no love in him,” Young added.

In 1967, when Ali refused to step forward and join the U.S. Army, Young wrote that, “The Black Muslims have led astray Cassius Clay. They have rebaptized him Muhammad Ali and made him feel like a big deal, when in reality he is a big deal without them.” And before Ali’s 1970 bout with Joe Frazier, Young referred to Ali as a “hate name,” writing to his mass tabloid audience, “I do not believe Cassius Clay or anyone who thinks like him is good for my country. He is for separatism. He is for black man against white man.”

All the while, however, Smith’s thoughts on the boxer slowly changed.

While initially Smith was critical of Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam, the death of Smith’s first wife, and ensuing second marriage to a woman with a daughter who took part in the famed August 1968 Chicago Vietnam War protests, started to open the writer’s eyes to differing perspectives. “I got the impression that what he saw there, and the fact that he had an adolescent in his life for the first time in many years, made Red rethink some of his positions,” Izenberg said. From that point forward, Smith didn’t use the phrasing, “unwashed punks,” to describe war protesters. He also went from calling the boxer “Cassius Muhammad Ali Clay” to calling him simply, “Muhammad Ali.”

Ali’s rise in stature paralleled a revival in boxing’s popularity, as television helped give the sport a much-needed boost. The sport had suffered from low attendance and viewership totals through the late 1950s and early 1960s, but by the late 70s, Smith wrote that thanks to television “there’s life in the old game yet.”

A poll conducted by TV Guide in the late 70s determined that Cosell was both the most beloved and most despised sportscaster in America. He had been ringside at nearly all the big moments in Ali’s career, calling legendary spectacle after legendary spectacle.

By the early 1980s, the conversation around Ali had changed. Television had in some ways pushed sportswriters, but changes around the country also played a role in their views changing.

At the same time, many of America’s racial tensions, at least the most violent ones, had seemingly been resolved or forgotten, and the prevailing historical narrative about Ali at the time dealt solely with his progressive activism and boxing legacy.

“People, by the 1980s, begun to forget how devious, and how controversial a character he was,” Lipsyte said. The result was a return to more apolitical coverage.

Smith, impacted both by his intense personal change and societal changes, voiced true reverence in August 1979. “Not even chess champions last 19 years, and chess champions don’t take punches,” he wrote, adding that, “only an extraordinary athlete could have done what Ali did. Only an exceptional person could have meant what he has meant.”

Even Young, who was one of Ali’s most public critics, eventually changed his tune. “I never saw a better fighter,” he wrote after Ali’s 1980 fight with Larry Holmes. “And I have seen few better men, regardless of our sometimes political and religious disagreements.”

Young’s curmudgeonly and conservative attitude had seemingly absorbed or accepted many of the changes that had taken place in society. The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War had passed. In all likelihood, Young no longer saw Ali as a threat to society; the boxer was no longer upsetting Young’s conception of America.

Lipsyte calls the final chapter of Ali’s life “the teddy bear phase,” in which much of the controversy pertaining to the fighter was forgotten. By the conclusion of Ali’s career, he had returned from exile, triumphed before the Supreme Court and emerged as “The Greatest.” In 1996, Ali took part in one of the most iconic moments in modern Olympic history, lighting the Olympic flame at the Atlanta games while suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Ali was difficult to cover, but he was also a reporter’s dream. He would often call out reporters to make sure they were listening. And, if a reporter wasn’t taking down notes, Kindred remembered that Ali would sometimes volunteer to stop and wait till the newspaperman was ready. “You’d ask him one question and he’d talk for two hours,” he recalled.

But aside from Ali’s vivid stories and accessibility, he helped open many sportswriters’ eyes. With Cosell largely by his side, Ali pushed the print sports press to not only focus on the action itself.

Today, Colin Kaepernick, Martellus Bennett and many others have created similar conversations. Smith and Young are both no longer around, but many sportswriters still wrestle with how to tackle such issues. Their visions of America are still being challenged and as they compete against television, they too are hooked into a story and have to follow it to the end.

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