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Muhammad Ali

Cassius X: Inside Cassius Clay’s conversion to Islam

An intimate look at heavyweight champ’s relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam

Someone knocked on the door. Malcolm X eased into the room, coolly sucking on a peppermint. Cutting through the tension in the dressing room before the fight, he warmly greeted Cassius Clay and his brother, Rudy.

“The fight is the truth,” Malcolm X prophesied. “It’s the Cross and the Crescent — a Christian and a Muslim facing each other with television to beam it off Telstar for the whole world to see what happens!” It was all part of the boxer’s destiny. “Do you think Allah has brought about all this intending for you to leave the ring as anything but the champion?” Malcolm X asked rhetorically.

The day of the fight

It was Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami and it seemed that the gods had conspired against the fight. If something could go wrong, it had, or it would. Promoter William MacDonald, a wealthy, backslapping amateur in the fight game, had badly miscalculated ticket pricing. The best tickets, the $250 Golden Circle high-roller seats, had gone quickly, as had the $20 nosebleed seats. But the traffic for the $200, $150, and $100 seats had been as slow as I-95 at rush hour. And the incessant rain did not help matters. The box office was almost deserted as tellers shook their heads and speculated on how much money “Uncle Billy” would lose.

The heavyweight title fight, virtually everyone agreed, was an unqualified mismatch. The smart money (as well as the stupid money) was almost all on Sonny Liston, the division’s favorite indestructible mob goon. Liston would annihilate Cassius Marcellus Clay — the handsome, loud, obnoxious challenger. Acid-tongued sports writer Jim Murray’s only prayer for Clay was “that he clots easily.” As for a strategy, Murray wrote, “If I were Cassius Clay, I would fight him at such long range he would have to reach me through Western Union.”

Not that many fight fans were losing any sleep over Clay’s almost certain destruction. His public standing had to rise considerably to reach unpopular. His “I am the greatest” act had soured. He had become the epitome of the poor sportsman — belittling opponents, insulting sports writers and praising himself. “The love of Cassius for Clay is so rapturous no girl could come between them,” Murray speculated. “Marriage would be almost bigamy.”

Then, in an act that seemed to invite further hatred, Clay invited Malcolm X to come to Miami for a relaxing vacation. The last thing the beleaguered Nation of Islam minister needed in February 1964 was more heat. Most white Americans regarded him as the spokesman for an anti-white hate cult. Many black Americans resented his vituperative attacks on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And to make matters even worse, he was at the center of some particularly nasty in-house strife inside the Nation of Islam.

Heavyweight contender Cassius Clay watches himself in a mirror at his training gym as he prepares for a title fight with champion Sonny Liston.

Heavyweight contender Cassius Clay watches himself in a mirror at his training gym as he prepares for a title fight with champion Sonny Liston.

Bettmann/Corbis /AP Images

But, Malcolm X must have thought there was always room for things to get worse. And he was right. Against the express edict of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad not to make any comment concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X went rogue. On Dec. 1, 1963, less than two weeks after the president’s death, Malcolm X simply could not bite his tongue. Pressed by a gaggle of reporters for his opinion of the assassination, he sensed a trap, hesitated and then gave the scribes more controversy than they could ever have imagined. The president’s murder, he said, was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” America’s violence in Vietnam and the Congo was returning home with a vengeance. To make his position perfectly clear, he added, “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never made me sad; they always made me glad.”

This was the man — the brilliant, outspoken, toxic man — whom Clay invited into his camp. Sports writers were not the quickest to sense the politics behind Clay’s largesse, but neither were they deaf, dumb and blind. They saw Malcolm X smiling at the challenger’s antics, whispering in his ear, muscling next to him at every photo opportunity. Soon they asked the obvious question: Cassius, are you a Black Muslim? The boxer didn’t confirm that he was, but he certainly did not unequivocally deny it. He spoke warmly about the Nation of Islam, and affirmed that Malcolm X was his dear friend.

Malcolm X’s presence and the rumors of Clay’s Black Muslim affiliation threatened to strangle the live and pay-per-view theater gates for the match. A title contest between a brutish ex-convict and a bloviating Black Muslim had the appeal of a shark-eaten marlin that had washed up on Miami Beach. At the time, rooting for either fighter was like cheering for the Russians to beat the United States in the space race.

The day after the fight

It’s Feb. 26, 1964. What happened to the Louisville Lip? Where did he go? The questions occurred to several reporters as they asked questions to the new champion at a late-morning press conference. His eyes seemed unengaged in the proceedings, registering no interest in the men asking the questions. The Louisville Lip was usually loud, sometimes dismissive and usually boastful — but always engaged.

Was this the new Muslim champ? Malcolm X’s champ? That morning, Mike Handler had reported in The New York Times that Clay was “a Muslim and a close friend of Malcolm.” Printed in the editorially conservative New York Times, the story carried added weight. Although it was known that the boxer was sympathetic to the Nation of Islam, he had not said publicly that he had joined the organization.

“Speak louder, Cassius,” someone shouted, according to Arthur Daley, in a New York Times article. “We can’t hear you.” When had a reporter ever had to urge him to speak up?

The new Clay seemed far less interesting than the old, and soon the reporters started heading over to where Liston was about to hold his press conference.

A few stayed behind, intrigued by the change in Clay. A younger one asked the forbidden question. “Are you a card-carrying member of the Black Muslims?” The question was out of bounds. The unwritten code in sports reporting forbade writers from asking questions about politics, religion, drinking, or marital infidelities. Now someone was asking Clay if he belonged to what most white and some black Americans believed was an extreme religious cult.

Some of the reporters expressed contempt. Robert Lipsyte’s New York Times report captured this moment when the worlds of sport and politics collided. “[T]here was a trace of antagonism when [Clay] refused to play the mild and socially uninvolved sports-hero stereotype, and began to use the news conference as a platform for socio-political theory.”

That was, of course, exactly what Clay and Malcolm X had discussed — using the title as a venue to address political issues, not as an accomplishment to curry favor with white America. Former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson made liberal Americans optimistic about the future when he spoke quietly of the need for peace, optimism and integration. He played by the existing rules of the sports world, presenting himself as an acceptable role model for black and white youths. But Clay refused to play that part in the heavyweight, morality play.

Cobbled from the teaching of Elijah Muhammad and the rhetoric of Malcolm X, Clay had made variations of this speech before, but never as the heavyweight champion, a position of some authority. Taking advantage of the moment, he spoke his mind freely and boldly. He defended Malcolm X: “If he’s so bad, why don’t they put him in jail?” He addressed his support for Malcolm X’s teachings: “I catch so much hell, why? Why me when I don’t try to bust into schools or march around or throw bricks?”

Clay’s rambling defense of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X was an example of his main point, one that Lipsyte used in his lead the next day. Glancing at the group of mostly all white reporters — some angry, others shocked, a few supportive — Clay asserted, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want.”

It was a revolutionary statement, announcing his emancipation from the prescribed role for “Negro” athletes. He did not have to be like Patterson, or Major League Baseball’s color barrier-breaking Jackie Robinson, or any other “credit to his race” men. In a shockingly radical declaration, amounting to a manifesto, Clay said that he was not a Negro, a Christian, or an advocate of racial integration. He was black, a Muslim and a separatist.

Malcolm X’s plans for Clay, now Cassius X, became more clear when they met with foreign diplomats at the United Nations. Sports writer Murray Robinson noted in the New York Journal American that Malcolm X intended to “make the heavyweight champion an international political figure.”

When Elijah Muhammad learned that Cassius X was fraternizing all over New York with Malcolm X — the Nation of Islam’s enemy — he fumed. He refused to let Malcolm X rob the Nation of Islam of his most prized possession. The heavyweight champion, Elijah Muhammad realized, could prove incredibly valuable as a recruiter for his movement. Later that afternoon, after Cassius X returned from the United Nations, Elijah Muhammad called him at the Hotel Theresa. The Supreme Minister made it clear that no one in the Nation of Islam could associate with Malcolm X. Cassius X got the message.

In the past, the champ had professed great admiration for his name. Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. — it was a beautiful name, he said. But the ministers in the Nation of Islam taught him to reject that name — it was his slave name and no proud black man could carry the name of a white slave owner. Elijah Muhammad reminded him that his “original name” — Muhammad Ali — meant “one who is worthy of praise,” and no one was more deserving of that distinction than him.

Ali knew that he had to make a crucial decision. Ultimately, he submitted to Elijah Muhammad. When he accepted his original name, he broke with a heritage tied to slavery. It signified his political and religious awakening, a reclamation of his identity from the white world.

Changing his name to Muhammad Ali also meant that he would have to cut ties with Malcolm X, his brother, mentor and friend. There could be no love between him and Malcolm X, not as long as he declared his loyalty to The Messenger, Elijah Muhammad.

When he was Cassius Clay, he had said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be.” Yet that was never really true. There were limits to his new freedom. When he accepted the name Muhammad Ali, he also accepted Elijah Muhammad’s authority over his life. He was no longer free to make decisions about his career or his friendships.

March 1964 - Miami: Black Muslim leader Malcolm X (L), behind soda fountain, with tux-clad Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) (R), while surrounded by jubilant fans after he beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.

March 1964 – Miami: Black Muslim leader Malcolm X (L), behind soda fountain, with tux-clad Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) (R), while surrounded by jubilant fans after he beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.

Photo by Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Ali could not imagine defying The Messenger. How could he? His vision of Elijah Muhammad was a product of Malcolm X’s creation — part man, part prophet. Elijah Muhammad, he believed, was the wisest and most powerful black man he knew. And it was Malcolm X who convinced him of Elijah Muhammad’s divine authority.

Ali told reporters that he disagreed with Malcolm X’s sanguinary rhetoric. “I’m against violence,” he said. “I am a fighter and I am religious,” but “I am not going to do anything that is not right. I don’t know much about what Malcolm X is doing, but I do know that Muhammad is the wisest.”

Yet, Ali wasn’t ready to completely sever his relationship with Malcolm X. About two weeks later, after promising Elijah Muhammad that he would no longer associate with Malcolm X, he had a private meeting with him at the Hotel Theresa. What they said is lost to history. When a reporter asked Malcolm X if he had seen Ali in New York, he praised the champ for infusing black people with racial pride. He was unsure about the champ’s future, but he insisted, “We are brothers.”

In Ali’s private moments he must have wondered if he had made the right decision. He cared deeply for Malcolm X and didn’t want to hurt him, but his life was no longer his own. Months later, writer Alex Haley interviewed him for Playboy. By then, people knew that Ali had ended his relationship with Malcolm X. Publicly, the champ had few kind words to say about the defrocked minister. But one comment he made must have surprised Haley. Scribbled on one of the writer’s index cards was Ali’s reply — a note that never made it into Haley’s epilogue in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X remained, Ali said, “my brother, [and] my friend.”

Liner Notes

Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts are the authors of “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X”

Randy Roberts is the author of Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, as well as other biographies. With Johnny Smith, he wrote Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.