“He is far and away the most interesting character in that mythical kingdom I call Sports World,” notes author Lipsyte, who depicts Ali’s mercurial character in a way that engages the reader. Lipsyte also instructs the young reader, providing a context for further study of race relations, the Vietnam War, and other significant aspects of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The reader senses the affection and respect Lipsyte feels for Ali as an athlete and as a person. Equally apparent, however, is the skepticism with which Lipsyte views unverifiable stories from the Ali mythology that seem too pat, too slick, or too contrived. Thus it seems appropriate for Lipsyte to conclude that he likes Ali but does not truly know him: “Muhammad Ali is a wise man and a fool, a person of principle and a greedy huckster, a generous, miserly, smart, silly, kind, cruel spirit of our times.” Ali therefore remains something of an enigma.
For a brief work, Free to Be Muhammad Ali is surprisingly informative and revealing. It is especially valuable for young readers given the traditional popularity with them of biographies of sports and entertainment figures. Moreover, Lipsyte’s style, integrity, and ability to select facts to create a balanced portrayal have freed the work from flaws that often mar biographies. Fictionalizing of events, for example, is not done in this book.
Scholars studying juvenile and young adult biographies of athletes often...
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Lipsyte, who came to know Ali while working as a sports columnist, is also a writer of acclaimed fiction for young adult readers. Composites of several people associated with Ali appear as characters in Lipsyte’s fiction. The acclaimed young adult novel The Contender (1967), for example, introduces Alfred Brooks, a com-posite of some of Ali’s own characteristics (such as the supposed lack of a “killer instinct”) and the traits of several contenders Ali fought. Brooks leaves active boxing and becomes a police officer who runs a gym, as did Joe Martin in the life of Ali. The fictional Brooks reappears in The Brave (1991) as an experienced police officer who trains Sonny Bear, the young Native American boxer who is the central character.
More recent biographies of Ali by other authors have contributed engrossing details, viewpoints, and perspectives. Several appeared during 1992, when Ali turned fifty. Ferdie Pacheco’s Muhammad Ali: A View from the Corner (1992) is one such book. In it, Pacheco says the Parkinson’s syndrome that afflicted Ali was the result of too many battles in the boxing ring. His portrayal provides a fascinating perspective on Ali and his entourage and contains many photographs. The Story of Muhammad Ali, Heavyweight Champion of the World (1990), by Barry Denenberg, like Lipsyte’s book, was written for a young readership. Free to Be Muhammad Ali compares quite favorably with the other biographies and is superior to them in balance and readability. Thus it could be useful in several subjects of the school curriculum. Because it ends in early 1978, however, before Ali’s boxing career ended, it should not be the only biography of Ali recommended to a young reader.