One of the Greatest: Dave Zirin on Mike Marqusee, Muhammad Ali, and Redemption Song


Ali lights the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics. 

Redemption Song is 40% off through Sunday, March 5th. Click here to activate the discount.

When Mike Marqusee passed away in January 2015 at the age of sixty-two, I wrote the following in pages of The Nation:

I’m a sportswriter because Mike Marqusee made me one. I divide my life not “before and after I had kids” or “before and after I moved out of my mom’s house in New York City” but “before and after I read Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties in 1998. Not only did Redemption Song rediscover quotes, speeches and dimensions of Ali’s politics and personality that had long been buried, but it revealed to me that sportswriting could be something different and even something dangerous.

After writing that tribute to my mentor and friend, many younger colleagues contacted me to say I was hardly alone. Although Mike Marqusee is rarely ever discussed in the very specific and very depoliticized canon of “great sportswriters,” Redemption Song is one of the most important — and influential — pieces of sportswriting in the last thirty years. There is no better example of how to use sports as a radical lens to understand politics. That is why this is a book treasured by both sports fans and by people who would not watch a boxing match as a point of principle.

Today, there is no shortage of great political sportswriting. This emergence has been aided by a new generation of athletes who are refusing to “shut up and play” and are using social media to get out their message in a very polarized, politicized landscape.

Redemption Song was ahead of this curve by a solid decade, demonstrating with every page the ways the real world could animate the sports world, and how sports could return the favor. Mike Marqusee showed that you did not have to surrender the dynamism of sportswriting to tell a political story, and you did not need to neglect radical politics to talk sports. Marqusee had gone down this road before, writing with biting clarity about cricket and soccer. But in Muhammad Ali, he had a subject I truly believe Mike was born to tackle. And the timing of this book could not have been more perfect. The Muhammad Ali of 1999 had recently been reembraced by the political mainstream as well as the sports world. With a trembling hand, he lit the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, while President Bill Clinton looked on, with his practiced trembling lip. That Olympics marked an effort to turn Ali, his voice muffled by Parkinson’s, into a beloved symbol of universal reconciliation, devoid of political content. Once silenced, Ali was now safe to be embraced. Mike Marqusee summed it up this way, in what I think is the fundamental passage of this book. He wrote:

Like Martin Luther King — or even Malcolm X — two other ’60s icons with whom Ali enjoyed more than a passing acquaintance — Ali has had his political teeth extracted. It’s not surprising. When an icon accumulates as many devotees as Ali has, when it emits such a numinous glow, it becomes irresistible to capitalism. Was there a better figure to help NBC, Coca-Cola, and the Atlanta business elite sell the global games to America, and sell America to the world?

This point has become even more pressing in the wake of Muhammad Ali’s death. Many news outlets did give an obligatory nod to Ali’s politics and influence in the 1960s, although in the vaguest possible terms. They said he was “against war and racism.” But these abstract paeans do not explain why Ali was so despised by the mainstream media and older civil rights activists in the 1960s. As Redemption Song spells out with sparkling clarity, Ali was not merely against war. He was against empire. He also was not just “against racism.” He was an adherent of the Nation of Islam, believing in black separation as well as abstention from the integrationist goals of Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement. Yet Marqusee, like no other writer, explains how the fighter who jeered the Black Freedom Struggle in 1964 by saying he’d “never carry a sign,” would “in the end fight all the battles he sought to avoid, and on a grand scale. He would ‘carry a sign’ by becoming a sign — a living symbol of African-American and ultimately global insurgency.” That last point — global insurgency — is an additional aspect of Ali’s legacy other biographers ignored or didn’t have the politics to grasp. Mike was an internationalist of the first rank, and therefore predisposed towards examining how this Louisville boxer developed a global consciousness. He also wanted to dig deeper into Ali’s global impact. This brought Mike toward the emerging Pan-African consciousness of the 1960s and how it had a defining impact on Ali’s politics. He also looked at the ways that the brief but extremely intense friendship Ali shared with Malcolm X affected this world view and made a credible case that Ali was consciously carrying on Malcolm X’s legacy of anti-imperialism into the late 1960s.

This analysis was apostasy when Redemption Song was published. After all, as critics sniped, Muhammad Ali turned his back on Malcolm X when Malcolm left the Nation of Islam. The connection, it was assumed, was severed. But Mike, thanks to his fine-tuned political antennae, understood that the bond still existed, even if the personal side of it was unspoken. I could not help but think of Mike when I attended Ali’s funeral in Louisville and saw that one of the speakers was Malcolm’s daughter Attallah Shabazz. She said that Ali was “bequeathed to me directly by my dad ... From the very moment we found one another, it was as if no time had passed at all, despite all the presumptions of division. Despite all the efforts at separation. Despite all the organized distancing. We dove right into all of the unrequited, yet stated and duly acknowledged spaces we could explore and uncover privately. We cried out loud [over] his grief for having not spoken to my dad before he left, and then just as loudly we laughed about the best of stories that can’t be repeated ... Love is a mighty thing. Devotion is a mighty thing. And truth always reigns. Having Muhammad Ali in my life somehow sustained my dad’s breath for me, just a little while longer. Fifty-one years longer, until now.”

As her voice broke, Ms. Shabazz said, “I am forever grateful for our union on earth together.”

The connection between Malcolm and Muhammad had not been severed. It was there not only politically but personally as well. Mike had already sensed that. He felt it. And he explained it two decades ago.

I kept thinking about Mike Marqusee at Ali’s funeral. If he had been there, I think Mike would have, like Attallah Shabazz, laughed and cried. He would have hollered and howled. He would have chanted Ali’s name with the 100,000 who lined the streets. He also would have seen things — divined through the subtle comment of a eulogist or a reaction in the crowd — that I, and the other sports writers that were there that day, simply missed. We don’t have Mike to explain these things to us any more and that is a terrible loss. What we do have is this remarkable book that acts as a methodology and a compass for understanding not only the great Ali but all the electric ways that sports and politics collide and rumble throughout our lives.

Redemption Song is 40% off through Sunday, March 5th. Click here to activate the discount.