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Men's Boxing Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali: When sports and politics collide

Though it was brief, the pair’s relationship changed both men, highlighted by the fact that the boxer regrets turning his back on the ‘man who more than any other imbued him with the confidence to live free and proud’

With the anniversary of the murder of Malcolm X coming up on February 21, the short-lived and scintillating friendship which the black liberation firebrand – and, later, champion of pan-Africanism –enjoyed with a young and unapologetically black Muhammad Ali in the early 1960s still stands as the most powerful refutation of the mantra that sport and politics should not mix.

Theirs was a friendship between two men who were the living antithesis of Goethe’s admonition that: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” Neither Malcolm nor Ali had any illusions that they or their people were free in America, and both were intent on making sure everybody knew it, no matter the consequences.

While the relationship they enjoyed may have exploded into public consciousness immediately after Ali’s (still then Cassius Clay) stunning victory over Sonny Liston in Miami on February 25 1964, Clay first encountered Malcolm at a Nation of Islam rally in Detroit in June 1962, where he spoke on a platform alongside the organisation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. 

In their book on the relationship between Malcolm and Ali, “Blood Brothers,” Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith recount Ali’s first impressions of a man who would have such a significant influence not only on him but black people across America. “How could a black man talk about the government and white people and act so bold and not be shot at?” Ali said. “How could he say these things? God must be protecting him. He was fearless [and] that really attracted me.”

Unbeknown to the young heavyweight contender, by this point relations between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad were strained to breaking point, reflective of Malcolm’s increasing frustration at the Nation’s lack of active engagement and participation in the black freedom struggle that was then raging, especially in the South where Jim Crow held sway.

Then, too, in confronting his leader with information revealing that he, Elijah Muhammad, was not the incorruptible, righteous and divinely inspired leader of the religion he preached, Malcolm unwittingly placed himself outside the circle of trust. Where before he was revered, his status within the Nation as its national spokesman and closest disciple of Elijah rock solid, now he was perceived as a threat and enemy within.

Around the same time, Cassius Clay had emerged as a heavyweight contender whose uncanny speed, balance and movement in the ring was married to unbounded confidence and self-assertion. Prior to his emergence, boxing was on the downslide as a mass spectator sport in the US.

It was a sport plagued by corruption, mob influence, waning crowds, and the lack of marketable fighters capable of transcending the sport to become household names with the general public. 

Clay was the fighter who would change that, transforming the sport’s fortunes beyond all recognition.

However even during the fallow years, boxing continued to exert a strong appeal on black America, allowing a people who’d been reduced to the status of second and third class citizens to experience all too rare moments of triumph through the exploits of legendary black fighters such as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson.

At the height of the civil rights struggle, Dr Martin Luther King in one of his speeches shared with his audience the following story: “One of the southern states,” he told them, “adopted a new method of capital punishment, poison gas. In its earliest stages a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner. The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: ‘Save me. Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me.”

Clay’s growing racial consciousness grew in tandem with his prodigious achievements in the ring. As far back as the late 1950s he was aware of the Nation of Islam and what it stood for. It was then that he began to encounter and listen to the organisation’s street corner preachers in New York, Atlanta, Detroit and Miami, where he based himself under the guidance of Angelo Dundee. 

The message of self-reliance and black separation that was at the heart of the Nation’s teachings struck a chord when wedded to his own lived experience and observation of the condition of black people in America.

Malcolm’s influence when they became friends in 1962 was that of a personal spiritual and religious teacher, instilling in the young fighter the driving sense of purpose that informed his will to win in the ring; the understanding that he was fighting for a cause greater than self. 

Though Elijah may have anointed Clay as Muhammad Ali, a name that would ring around the world like a thunderclap, it was Malcolm who influenced Clay to see himself as the tribune of black racial pride that would define him as Ali.

Malcolm, to all intents, became Clay’s alter ego. He inspired him with his strident defiance of white America – with his his dazzling oratory and ability to confound newspaper reporters, TV journalists and those who tried to contradict the teachings of the Nation with consummate ease.

Crucially, though, by the time he climbed into the ring to face Liston in Miami in 1964, the rupture between Malcolm and Elijah was irrecoverable – and Clay suddenly found himself pitched into the middle of the ensuing acrimony as a prize to be fought over and won.

The campaign undertaken by Elijah to woo Clay away from Malcolm was an exercise in opportunism. In truth, the Nation’s leader viewed Clay’s fame and ring career as entities that could be exploited, both financially and in terms of the credibility it would ascribe to himself and the Nation of Islam.  

Regardless, it was a campaign that succeeded. As Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith make clear: “Malcolm never wielded the same power over [Cassius Clay] that Elijah Muhammad did. How could he? Clay’s vision of Elijah Muhammad was a product of Malcolm’s creation – part man, part prophet, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Although he admired Malcolm, he viewed him only as Muhammad’s representative.”

That Malcolm X loved Cassius Clay is not in doubt. Their admiration was mutual and mutually reinforcing, developing into a material force at its height in the run up to Clay’s first fight with Liston in Miami, when the 22-year-old “shook up the world.”

It was therefore tragic that when he turned his back on Malcolm, the newly anointed Muhammad Ali did not hold back, denouncing his former friend and adviser venomously – almost as if expiating his own earlier self of contumacy for daring to associate with the Nation’s most high profile and outspoken apostate.

Four decades after Malcolm’s murder, Ali voiced his regret over his brutal rejection of the man who more than any other imbued him with the confidence to live free and proud. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.”

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