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Boxing Blood brothers: Ali v Malcom

JOHN WIGHT explores the rise and fall of friendship between two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century: Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

THE news that Scottish film production company, Two Rivers Media, has been commissioned by US broadcaster, the Smithsonian Channel, to make a documentary on Muhammad Ali covering his early transformation from Cassius Clay into Ali — based on the book by Scottish author Stuart Cosgrove — should have fans of The Greatest brimming with anticipation.

The global importance and reach of Ali’s legacy is reflected in the Scottish aspect of this project — ie a book on the man by a Scottish author being made into a two-hour film by a Scottish production company at the behest of a US broadcaster. 

But it’s also reflective of the extent to which the life and legacy of Ali continues to resonate, and perhaps even more, with the passage of time.

This is arguably particularly the case when it comes to the transformation of the man from Cassius X, the original name bestowed on him by the Nation of Islam in the eary 1960s, into Muhammad Ali, the name the Nation’s leader Elijah Muhammed personally gave him after he defeated Sonny Liston in Miami to become world heavyweight champion in February 1964.

I have not myself read Cosgrove’s book, but I have studied the life and legacy of Ali at length over the years, and among the most insightful and compelling sources I have come across, covering this early transformative period in his life, are Redemption Song by Mike Marqusee, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser, and Blood Brothers by Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts.

The single most important aspect of Clay’s transformation into Ali was his betrayal of Malcolm X.

Indeed the hard truth is that soon after becoming heavyweight champion, Ali turned his back on a man with whom he had forged a brother/mentor relationship and from whom he’d been inseparable up to that point.

Ali’s betrayal of Malcolm came at a critical juncture in both their lives and, more broadly, at a crucial time in the struggle for black emancipation.

In Blood Brothers, which focuses on the tempestuous relationship between a young Cassius Clay and Malcolm — and which itself was turned into a 2021 Netflix documentary — Roberts and Smith provide a forensic account of the friendship between Ali and Malcolm, forged in faith and ended in blood.

“When Malcolm’s life was in danger,” Roberts and Smith write, “when Elijah Muhammad threatened to cast him out outside the Nation of Islam, Clay became the central figure in his [Malcolm’s] world.”

Most historical accounts of the rupture in the friendship between Ali and Malcolm in this period have depicted it as mere collateral from the breach between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm.

Roberts and Smith take a different view, writing that “the instant Malcolm realized he might be murdered, he tethered his future — his very survival — to the life of a boxer who most people figured would never win the heavyweight championship.”

“Malcolm,” they continue, “had no doubt that someone within the Nation wanted him dead. He also knew that none of Elijah’s disciples would risk Clay’s life. As long as they were together, Malcolm figured, he was safe.”

The consequent pressure placed on the shoulders of a 22-year-old boxer cannot be overstated, given the stakes involved in being forced to choose between his love for Malcolm X and loyalty to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation.

The pressure would have been inordinate and no doubt at times debilitating, knowing the potential outcome with regard to either choice.

When it comes to Malcolm, the idea of a man who knows his life is in danger and finds himself dependent on the loyalty and affections of a 22-year-old boxer for his very survival is nothing if not chilling.

Elijah Muhammad only began to lavish special attention on Clay after his victory over Liston. Prior to that the leader of the Nation eschewed the organisation’s support for Clay — held a negative view of boxing and professional sports overall — and doubted if he could defeat Liston.

When he won, Elijah went all out to win Ali back from Malcolm with the objective of using him as a tool to promote himself and the Black Muslims.

The wider political, as opposed to personal, context to the split between Malcolm and Elijah was Malcolm’s growing disenchantment at the lack of engagement by the Nation in the black civil rights struggle raging across America’s Deep South at the time.

The truncated religiosity and isolationist bent of the Nation had become a fetter on Malcolm’s deepening political consciousness, just as the truncated liberalism and Washington Establishment bent of the civil rights movement would later become a fetter on Martin Luther King’s deepening political consciousness.

This chasm between the militancy of the Nation’s rhetoric and the passivity of its actions was a boil lanced by Jackie Robinson.

Malcolm had railed against Robinson over his public attack against Paul Robeson due to the latter’s pro-Soviet stance.

As Mike Marqusee reveals in Redemption Song, Robinson snapped back at Malcolm thus: “You mouth a big and bitter battle, Malcolm, but it is noticeable that your militancy is mainly expressed in Harlem, where it is safe.”

The turbulence encapsulated in the above passage mirrored the turbulence of the struggle for racial justice being waged in the US at the time.

Similar turbulence is reflected today in the rise of Black Lives Matter in the US and beyond, with a concomitant renewed interest in the ideas, speeches and writings of Malcolm X and other black radical voices of the ’60s.

Returning to Cassius Clay and his transformation into Muhammad Ali, as mentioned this took place at the expense of Malcolm X, the man who mentored and inspired him during this formative period.

We can only speculate over the path history may have taken if Clay had instead broken with Elijah and the Nation and remained loyal to Malcolm X.

The upcoming documentary — Cassius X: Becoming Ali — will hopefully cover this period in the depth required to understand the complexities of human consciousness and behaviour when engaged in a fierce struggle for identity and dignity under the iron heel of an oppressive system that draws nourishment from the denial of both.

Ali’s legacy of courage and defiance in and out of the ring remains sacrosanct notwithstanding his betrayal of Malcolm X. 

This betrayal while still a young man — and over which it should be mentioned he later expressed regret — presents him as he was: not a great man but a man who did great things, and also some not so great.

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