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Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

August 1, 2016

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Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X are two of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. With decades of hindsight, they’re both celebrated as heroes of civil and human rights, though when they first emerged as public figures in the early 1960s, they more often roused fear, ire and hatred. In 1963, Ali was still going by the name of Cassius Clay. He was a brash young newcomer who declared to all who would lend an ear that he would soon upset Sonny Liston and become the heavyweight champ. He was seen by boxing purists as unpolished in style and disrespectful in demeanor. At the same time, Malcolm X was one of the most influential members of the Nation of Islam, the black separatist group that many whites viewed with suspicion and trepidation. Their stories intertwined during the most pivotal time in both men’s lives, indeed a volatile moment in the history of the United States. Blood Brothers is about the influence the men had on each other.

When Clay was on the rise, few gave him any shot of living up to the hype that flowed from his own lips. As the title fight with Sonny Liston approached in February of 1964, Cassius was a seven to one Vegas underdog. Boxing reporters wrote him off (leading to Clay’s famous “eat your words!” tirade when Liston failed to meet the bell in the seventh). But Clay did have an inner circle who believed in him. One of those people was Malcolm X. The two had met after Clay saw Malcolm speak at a rally in 1962. They had become fast friends, although the relationship and Clay’s growing affiliation with the NOI was kept under wraps to protect the boxer from bad PR. Malcolm may not have known a lot about boxing, but he recognized an indomitable character when he saw one. He believed everything Cassius predicted about his future. He believed Cassius was destined for greatness. Surrounded by doubters, this meant a lot to Clay.

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But Malcolm’s motivations weren’t selfless. He knew that a personality like Clay, a heavyweight champion, could bring legitimacy to the Nation. Clay’s membership alone would be a recruiting tool. The Nation knew it too. Even though they had decried boxing as a dirty sport, as soon as Clay won the championship, they changed their tune. Led by the fraudulent Elijah Muhammad, the Nation persuaded Clay to go public with his membership. In 1965, amid a storm of controversy, the famous boxer changed his name to Cassius X.

As Cassius was growing closer to the Nation, Malcolm was having an increasingly public falling out. His own beliefs were evolving as his understanding of true Islam grew, and he was becoming increasingly aware of Elijah Muhammad’s hypocrisies. He and the NOI developed a very public feud and, forced to choose, Cassius sided with the NOI, abandoning Malcolm. There was an especially poignant moment when the two meet later in Ghana. Malcolm approached Cassius like old friends, but Cassius turned away, rebuffing Malcolm for leaving the NOI.

As the rift between Malcolm and the NOI grew, it then grew more and more caustic, then turned deadly. On February 21, 1965, before giving a speech at the Audobon Ballroom in New York, Malcolm was assassinated. Cassius, of course, would go on to live a long and celebrated life, the only three-time heavyweight champion and one of the greatest sports figures of the century. In his later years, he would follow a similar path as Malcolm, leaving the NOI and becoming an orthodox Sunni Muslim.  He passed away just two months ago, June 2, 2016, at the age of 74. But he had said publicly and in his autobiography that never patching things up with Malcolm was one of his greatest regrets.

While the intertwining of the two men’s stories is interesting, I didn’t find much new here. David Remnick’s King of the World and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention tell essentially the same stories. I wanted more of Ali’s private thoughts after decades of hindsight. Ali had a long time to think about his relationship with Malcolm and that period in his life. I wanted to know a little more about what the older, wiser Ali thought of his younger self.

That said, Ali is always entertaining to read about. His first fight with Liston is a classic, with his Louisville Lip clowning against Liston’s ex-con steeliness. One of my favorite moments is when, as the two are out promoting the fight, Liston says to Clay as Cassius is finishing a chicken dinner, “You eat like you headed to the electric chair.” Clay saw himself as an entertainer (“Where do you think I would be next week if I didn’t know how to shout and holler?”), but he claimed to be genuinely scared of Liston.

There are other moments when the poetry of the sport is captured beautifully in the lines. Although from a newspaper report, the book contains this wonderful analogy during the Clay vs Cooper fight in England. While Clay circled Cooper, popping him with jabs, one of his gloves began to rip. “As Clay threw punches, small tufts of horse hair spit out of the tear in his glove like spent cartridges…”

Or when the author describes Clay’s pauses mid-combination as if he were a master painter, “…stepping back to admire his work before adding a final dab of color.”

I could read about boxing all day, and in that, Blood Brothers delivers. But overall, while this book does bind the stories of Malcolm X and Cassius Clay together into one narrative, it doesn’t add much to what we already knew about that story.

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