The friendship between Cassius Clay and Malcolm X lasted only two years, from 1962 until 1964, a few months after Clay won the heavyweight title. But in that brief time, argue historians Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, the Nation of Islam minister had a decisive influence on the young man who would become Muhammad Ali. Boxing scholar Lucia Trimbur reviews their new book, Blood Brothers.
In early 1964, the new heavyweight champion of the world had an impossible decision to make. Though the young boxer had recently resolved questions about his talent in the ring, he now faced questions about his character outside the ring. Freshly renamed Muhammad Ali by Elijah Muhammad, the Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam, the athlete formerly known as Cassius Clay had to choose whether or not to follow his religious leader by terminating one of his closest and most cherished friendships.
While Muhammad Ali did elect to turn his back on friend, mentor, and spiritual guide Malcolm X, the way this relationship ended has been both misrepresented and misunderstood in biographical and historical literature. In Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith skillfully set the record straight by showing that Ali was much more ambivalent about losing Malcolm X than previous accounts have suggested and by illuminating just what both men meant to each other.
Roberts and Smith begin Blood Brothers by asking, “Who was Cassius Clay? And how did he become Muhammad Ali?” To the authors, the vast popular and scholarly literature devoted to one of the most famous athletes of the 1960s has obscured the “real” Ali and “distorted and trivialized” his legacy. Lost in these misappropriations is the centrality of Malcolm X in the making of Ali. Drawing upon previously unanalyzed sources such as Malcolm X’s personal papers, Alex Haley’s private documents, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports, State Department records, archived news and television footage, transcripts of interviews, and newly conducted interviews, Roberts and Smith take the reader through the social and political circumstances of the 1960s to understand how Ali and Malcolm X found each another and grew together.
With a focus on the intense two-year period in which their friendship blossomed, Roberts and Smith argue that without Malcolm X, Ali would never have emerged into the political figure he later became. Similarly, without his minister’s guidance, Ali could never have made sport as important to black struggle and liberation as it was in the 1960s. They write that the revolt of the black athlete in America,
began the moment young Cassius Clay had his first talk with Malcolm. Once Clay met Malcolm – once the personal narrative became a political one – the ring and the playing field were no longer sacred spaces. The relationship between Cassius Clay and Malcolm X signaled a new direction in American culture, one shaped by the forces of sports and entertainment, race and politics. When Clay befriended Malcolm and adopted his ideology, he became the most visible, politically conscious athlete in America. More than anyone else, Malcolm molded Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali. Under Malcolm’s tutelage, he embraced the world stage, emerging as an international symbol of black pride and black independence. Without Malcolm, Muhammad Ali would never have become the “king of the world.”
Blood Brothers starts with Cassius Clay’s international debut at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where the fighter concentrated on his craft, his intellectual virtuosity, and his physical gifts rather than on racial politics back home in the United States. When asked by a reporter at the games about racial segregation, Clay was quick to respond, “We’ve got qualified people working on that problem, and I’m not worried about the outcome.” And yet within two years, Clay was frequenting Nation of Islam meetings. After hearing Malcolm X speak at a gathering in Detroit on June 10, 1962, the boxer was smitten. When he finally met the leader in person, their friendship took off.
Though it took Clay little time to take in and adopt Malcolm’s teachings (the authors suggest that Clay was open to the Nation of Islam’s outlook because of Cassius Clay, Sr.’s own experiences and politics), Malcolm X initially was more skeptical of this participant of prizefighting, which he had once denigrated as “a racket.” Whatever ambivalence about boxing Malcolm had, however, was short-lived and he was soon attending Clay’s practices, meeting with the fighter, and appearing ringside. By early 1963, Malcolm X was convinced that Clay could be what Roberts and Smith call “a new kind of black champion—a champion of Black Nationalism.” Although Malcolm fell out with Elijah Muhammad and was suspended from the Nation of Islam in December 1963, he remained loyal to Muhammad, believing that Clay’s success against Liston in February 1964 would be crucial to racial struggle generally and the health of the Nation specifically. When Clay stepped into the ring on February 25, with Malcolm X watching from the audience, he was the prize in a tug-of-war between the two ministers.
With these seemingly straightforward facts, Roberts and Smith revise inaccuracies about Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. First, they show that Clay was on Muhammad’s radar before his fight with Liston. Second, they demonstrate that even though members of the Nation of Islam were prevented from associating with Malcolm X after his exile, Clay continued his friendship with the estranged leader, even after his March 6th anointment as Muhammad Ali. The two friends continued to see each other and to talk; Malcolm X’s diary, for example, indicates that he still considered Ali a close friend up until the famous betrayal in Ghana in May. Third, Roberts and Smith suggest that Malcolm X felt that proximity to Ali was necessary to his own survival. With death threats increasing by the day, Malcolm X may have considered himself protected with Ali by his side.
Blood Brothers ends with a devastating admission by Ali decades after Malcolm X’s assassination: “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 all over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” Though some may read the book as being about Ali, Blood Brothers is very much about friendship and the burden relationships can come under in times of great struggle. It deepens our understanding of the search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world as well as the demand for recognition in times of malevolent misrecognition.
Whether Ali could have saved Malcolm X is difficult to assess, especially because by 1969, Ali had himself been exiled by Elijah Muhammad. But what Blood Brothers persuasively argues is the extent to which Malcolm lost a friend, a comrade, and part of himself with Muhammad Ali’s rejection. And vice versa.
Basic Books, 2016. 392 pp. ISBN: 9780465079704
Lucia Trimbur is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is author of Come Out Swinging: The Changing World of Boxing in Gleason’s Gym. Lucia is on Twitter at @lbmnemosyne.