Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian

SOON AFTER MUHAMMAD ALI posed as a martyr, the country got a real one. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968, while the Esquire cover with Ali as Saint Sebastian was on the newsstands. I felt disgusted the first time I saw it. I had been following Ali for four years for the New York Times and I thought pimping him as a saint to sell a magazine was almost as morally corrupt as stripping his heavyweight title for his refusal to be drafted.

Ali’s was the most recognizable face on the planet at that time, its greatest athlete and rapper, willfully misinterpreted as hero and villain. A clueless government was afraid that if Ali went unpunished the pool of African American soldiers would dry up. Older sportswriters reviled him as an unpatriotic and ungrateful Negro, compared to their beau ideal, Joe Louis. Meanwhile, a generation of college boys who also didn’t want to go to Vietnam felt better imagining themselves under the testosterone shower of a seemingly principled champ. Years later, I watched them cry as they approached him. They never seemed to remember that before he said, “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong,” he wondered aloud why he needed to be drafted while there were still poor boys around.

Muhammad Ali on the cover of Esquire, April 1968.
Muhammad Ali on the cover of Esquire, April 1968.

Ali was no martyr, I thought back then. While he would lose three of his prime boxing years and millions in prize money and endorsement contracts, that didn’t equal Saint Sebastian’s agony for refusing to renounce Christianity, which Ali had already done. Ali’s six arrows were only glued on and held up by transparent fishing line. His manager, Herbert Muhammad, the son of the Nation of Islam’s leader, okayed the shoot for promotional value. Herbert was a money guy. The legendary Mad Man George Lois, self-described as the Greatest of art directors, designed the cover after the fifteenth-century painting by Botticini. It was photographed by the esteemed Carl Fischer.

Ali as saint was not reflected in Leonard Shecter’s piece inside the magazine, which captured his restless moodiness, grandiosity, and optimistic humor. Shecter felt sad for Ali and for himself. For the country. Yet it was the hot image on the cover that captured that hard year, America’s brutish divisiveness, its violent idealism and cool cynicism, its willingness to sacrifice American youth for ego and empire. Like Ali himself, the cover was controversial, but it signaled the country’s turn against the war and maybe even nudged it. Alas, like Saint Sebastian, Ali survived the arrows only to be clubbed to death.

Ali began his terminal suffering three years later at the hands of Joe Frazier, to be repeated twice, later by lesser fighters thanks to Herbert’s greed and Ali’s own resistance to giving up a dimming spotlight. It was his gallantry as a Parkinson’s patient that beatified him for me; I cried in 1996 as he lit the Olympic torch with a trembling hand. He lived another twenty years, stiffening, going mute, finally a martyr, to boxing.

Robert Lipsyte’s 1975 screed SportsWorld: An American Dreamland will be reissued in June by Rutgers University Press.