"They've got to kill me. They can't afford to let me live": Inside the amazing friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

How Malcolm X helped shape Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali -- and a symbol of black pride and independence

Published March 20, 2016 6:00PM (EDT)

Cover detail of "Blood Brothers"   (Basic Books)
Cover detail of "Blood Brothers" (Basic Books)

Excerpted from "Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X"

The Negro has long since learned that his real heroes are always depicted as villains by the white world.

America was unprepared for the name “Muhammad Ali.” Seldom had a man’s new name mattered so much to so many. He was not the first boxer to change his name. Countless other fighters changed their names too, many the sons of immigrants, who willingly adopted a new identity to make themselves more acceptable, more marketable, and more “American.” But none, until Muhammad Ali, chose a name that was freighted with such racial and political meaning.

Fight fans, promoters, and sportswriters had no problems using the other aliases, yet for political reasons, many refused to say the name “Muhammad Ali.” It sounded too foreign and too subversive. Skeptical of his sincerity, the Chicago Tribune printed an editorial assailing his religious beliefs: “It needs to be made quite clear that the ‘Islam’ which heavyweight champion Cassius Clay has adopted is a far, far cry from the religion practiced in the Arab world.” Mocking Ali, columnist Jim Murray referred to him as “Abdul the Bull Bull Ameer.” Sonny Liston dismissed the champ’s new name too: “Ahmed Mali, Mamud Wally, who’s that? I met you as Cassius Clay and I’ll leave you as Cassius Clay.” Recognizing the champ’s Muslim name would have meant accepting Ali’s freedom to define himself, a freedom that many whites—and even some blacks—were unwilling to acknowledge.

For the crusty, cigar-chomping crowd of old-school reporters—Red Smith, Dan Parker, Dick Young, Arthur Daley, and Jimmy Cannon— Ali was a national disgrace, the scourge of American sports. Cannon could not hide his disgust for Ali. He wrote, “I pity Clay and abhor what he represents.” The Black Muslims, he insisted, were “exploiting Clay” the same way that the “Communists used famous people” during the Great Depression. Now that Ali had become champion, boxing, Cannon feared, had reached its nadir. “The fight racket, since its rotten beginnings, has been the red light district of sports. But,” he lamented, “this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of mass hate.”

At a time when minorities held half of the major division boxing titles, it appeared that black and brown men dominated the entire sport. The days when boxing made “white men rich and black men cripples” were long gone. White writers and white fans lamented the loss of an era. Whites, they said, never got a shot at the heavyweight title anymore. It seemed that the black man had taken over everything: the cities, the streets, the old neighborhoods, even sports. More blacks could be seen on television playing baseball, basketball, and football. And now the black man had taken over boxing too. “Now that the equal opportunity movement has brought such an improvement to the lot of the Negro,” Dan Parker asked, “when are the white heavyweights going to start picketing the weighing-in scales at boxing commission offices for the same deal[?]”

The moment Ali defeated Liston, sportswriters and politicians revived their campaign to abolish boxing. In the greatest uproar since the death of Benny Paret, moralists demanded an investigation into the sport, questioning the legitimacy of Ali’s victory. “The odors of the Clay-Liston thing continue to assail the nostrils,” Arthur Daley wrote. Weeks after the match, Daley and other writers were still stunned that Liston had lost. Ali had looked unimpressive during his training camp, Daley argued, but overnight “became transformed into a clever” fighter. And Liston, usually an indomitable force, was unrecognizable sitting on his stool by the end of the sixth round.

Conspiracy theorists suspected that Ali had won the match for only one reason: the fight was fixed. They said that Ali had wanted to quit the fight, but his corner would not let him. They said that Liston wanted to continue, but his corner would not let him, either. That was why Liston, considered the toughest man in the game, complained that his injured shoulder prevented him from continuing. And of course, Sonny had ties to organized crime. But the most damning evidence, critics claimed, was that before the fight Ali had signed a contract with Liston’s promotional agency for fifty thousand dollars, guaranteeing International Promotions the right to name the new champion’s first opponent in a title defense. Ed Lassman, president of the World Boxing Association (WBA), insisted that the agreement violated their rules on return bouts, despite knowing all about the arrangement before the match. Since Liston was president of International Promotions, Lassman argued, he stood to benefit financially from a rematch with Ali, even though boxers often held a stake in promotional agencies.

There was no real evidence of a betting conspiracy involving Liston or Ali. Bookmakers insisted that the “smart money” was bet on Liston, and the gambling odds against Ali actually increased from 7–1 to 8–1 on the day of the match. If the fight was fixed for Ali to win, why did he beg Dundee to end the fight? If the fight was fixed for Liston to lose, why did he try to blind Ali? Every conspiracy theory about the fight crumbles under the weight of inconsistencies.

Despite the lack of any evidence against the champ, Lassman announced that the WBA would vacate Ali’s title because his behavior as champion was “detrimental to the boxing world.” Joining the Black Muslims, Lassman contended, made Ali “a very poor example for the youth of the world.” The WBA’s commissioner, Abe Greene, echoed his sentiment. “Clay should be given the chance to decide whether he wants to be a religious crusader or the heavyweight champion,” he said.

None of the most influential state athletic commissions supported the WBA’s endorsement. And, after a few days of hearings in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, there was still no evidence that Ali or Liston had done anything illegal. The subcommittee recommended passing a bill that would create a federal boxing czar who would oversee the sport, but the proposal never materialized. Facing strong opposition, Lassman ended his campaign against the champ. Still, Arthur Daley maintained that the WBA’s abortive efforts were inconsequential. “Boxing,” he wrote, “is beyond redemption. It should be abolished.”

For many critics, the future of the sport remained in doubt, but one thing was certain: Muhammad Ali was not the savior that Cassius Clay had been.


Muhammad Ali had made a world of enemies. While white critics denounced his membership in the Nation of Islam, blacks debated his relationship with the Muslims. Some feared that he would exploit his position as champion to recruit young blacks into the sect. Proclaiming his belief in separatism, Ali had created “more apprehension” among middle-class, integrationist blacks “than Malcolm X.” Black writers, entertainers, and activists compared his views to those espoused by the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Councils, and the Dixiecrats. “When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims and started calling himself Cassius X,” Martin Luther King charged, “he became the champion of racial segregation—and that is what we are fighting.”

Joe Louis, considered the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, beloved by blacks and whites alike, declared that he would never cheer for the Muslim champ. “Clay will earn the public’s hatred because of his connections with the Black Muslims,” he told reporters. “The things they preach are just the opposite of what we believe.” What we believe. Louis and many black Americans insisted that Ali no longer represented the race. He was an outsider, condemned for rejecting the ideals of the civil rights movement.

Ali disappointed many blacks because he rejected the traditional responsibilities associated with being heavyweight champion. In a xenophobic outburst, Floyd Patterson condemned Ali as unfit to be a champion. He accused him of being ignorant of the Black Muslims’ ideology and confused about their real goals. Ali “might just as well have joined the Ku Klux Klan,” he charged.

There was only one thing left for Patterson to do: save boxing from Muhammad Ali and the Nation of Islam. The good Catholic fighter challenged “Cassius X” to a holy war, announcing that he would fight him anytime, anywhere, even though the ninth-ranked heavyweight was in no position to proclaim himself a title contender. In his self-righteousness, Patterson made himself out to be more patriotic than Ali, a purer champion, and a better citizen. “I am an American,” he declared, implying that Ali was not—not as long as he belonged to the Nation of Islam.

Ali dismissed Patterson’s challenge. If anyone was exploiting boxing, he retorted, it was Patterson: “The only reason he’s decided to come out of his shell now is to try to make himself a big hero to the white man by saving the heavyweight title from being held by a Muslim.” When Patterson attacked Ali’s religion, the champion said that he might as well have been “attacking Cairo, Egypt, the Holy City of Mecca, Pakistan, Turkey, and 300,000” Muslim Americans. In defense of Islam, he began to see himself not just as an American but also as a global citizen, a guardian of all Muslims.

The feud between Patterson and Ali demonstrated that the backlash against the Muslim champ was as much about Islamophobia as it was about race. During the Cold War, many Americans linked Islam to the Middle East and Africa, a region perceived as backward, brutal, and politically oppressive. The vitriol aimed at Ali, therefore, derived from Americans who considered Islam a destructive alternative to Christianity, and from fears that the Middle East had succumbed to the influence of the Soviet Union.

Americans’ stereotypical views of the region as an endless sand trap, filled with genies, harems, sultans, sheiks, and camel-riding nomads, influenced their views of Ali. In a satirical column, Jim Murray portrayed him as “the Sheik of Araby,” fighting against infidels. “I think Cassius sees himself as Lawrence of Arabia or the Red Shadow rather than a guy licking stamps for hate literature,” he wrote. “Cassius has always had a lively imagination and it was only a question of time before he’d wrap a towel around his head and begin to play Saladin, the Saracen. I expect him to trade in his Cadillac for a camel any day now.”

Jackie Robinson did not use Ali’s Muslim name, but he recognized his right to practice Islam. “Clay has just as much right to ally himself with the Muslim religion as anyone else has to be a Protestant or a Catholic,” he wrote in his syndicated column. Robinson cautioned that there was no reason to think thousands of blacks would follow Ali because he had joined the Nation. Too many blacks had marched, fought, and bled for freedom to join a separatist movement, he argued.

While most black Americans rejected the theology of the Nation, many identified with Ali’s politics of self-determination. Young urban blacks viewed his resistance to white authority through the prism of their own struggle for empowerment and freedom. Jill Nelson, a writer who grew up in Harlem during the 1960s, recalled, “We weren’t about to join the Nation, but we loved Ali for that supreme act of defiance. It was the defiance against having to be the good Negro, the good Christian waiting to be rewarded by the righteous white provider.” Nelson and black youths across the country loved Ali for many reasons—his racial pride, his outspokenness, his independent attitude. But most of all, she said, they loved Ali because “he epitomized a lot of black people’s emotions at the time, our anger, our sense of entitlement, the need to be better just to get to the median, the sense of standing up to the furies.”

Facing an onslaught of criticism, Ali stood his ground, refusing to retreat from his beliefs. When Americans challenged his religious freedom, he began to question America. He was tired of hearing that he should show more restraint and dignity. He could not understand why people hated him just for being a Muslim. “People are always telling me what a good example I could be if I just wasn’t a Muslim,” he said. “I’ve heard it over and over, how come I couldn’t be like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well, they’re gone now, and the black man’s condition is just the same, ain’t it? We’re still catching hell.”


“It’s going to be different now,” Malcolm explained to New York Times writer Mike Handler. “I’m going to join the fight wherever Negroes ask for my help, and I suspect my activities will be on a greater and more intensive scale than in the past.” The past—it’s where Malcolm wanted to leave Elijah Muhammad and the Nation, but he could not break away from them, not as long as he lived. On Sunday, March 8, he drove to Handler’s home and told him that he no longer represented Muhammad and the Nation. In the interest of peace, he advised all Blacks Muslims to continue following Elijah, even though a group of confidants from his old mosque had already joined him.

The front page of the next day’s edition of the Times included Handler’s story, headlined, “Malcolm X Splits with Muhammad.” He addressed his plans for the future: building a Black Nationalist political party, organizing a voting campaign, speaking at college campuses, and working with civil rights groups—all activities Elijah had discouraged.

Around the same time, he started talking more about armed self-defense and purchased a semi-automatic rifle. If he wished to broker peace with Muhammad, he showed no restraint in blaming him for turning their dispute into a blood feud. When Handler asked why he was leaving Muhammad’s side, he answered, “Envy blinds men and makes it impossible for them to think clearly. This is what happened.”

Malcolm, Elijah had declared, was a hypocrite, a word with a special meaning among the Black Muslims. In the Nation, a hypocrite was the “most hated by God.” Elijah preached, “They are double-crossers; they come in claiming belief and then go out disbelieving.” These wicked, “evil-tongued people” who deceived Allah and deviated from His Messenger would suffer Allah’s wrath. A hypocrite like Malcolm was the enemy, and Allah would show him no mercy, Elijah warned.
On the Sunday that Malcolm spoke to Handler, Elijah sent Louis X to preach at Mosque No. 7 in Harlem. In a subsequent phone conversation, Elijah praised Louis for his good work replacing the exiled minister, though merely mentioning Malcolm’s name aroused Elijah’s anger. It was time to make an example of “that no good long-legged Malcolm,” he exclaimed. Hypocrites like him could only be dealt with one way: “you . . . cut their heads off.”

Elijah also stayed in close contact with his son Herbert, whom he had selected to manage Ali. He told Herbert that he wanted to meet with Ali in Chicago to ensure that the boxer had severed ties with Malcolm. He also wanted to discuss Ali’s upcoming trip abroad because the “young fellow” needed to learn how to behave when he met with statesmen. He worried that Ali had never been out of the country, which was untrue, revealing how little he actually knew about the boxer’s career. Elijah instructed Herbert not to let Ali make any “plans with anyone until” they met. Finally, he advised, add “four more pages to [our] paper,” so that the whole world could read about the famous Muslim champion.

On Monday, March 9, Muhammad telephoned Captain Joseph and declared that Malcolm must give up everything that belonged to the Nation of Islam, including his home. Joseph sent word to Maceo X, the secretary of the New York mosque, to draft an eviction letter. That same day, Herbert’s assistant called Malcolm to inform him that Elijah’s son would now serve as Ali’s manager and that Ali no longer planned to travel abroad with him.

Malcolm fumed. He was the one who introduced Ali to African ambassadors. He was the one who had convinced Ali that he should embrace a larger role on the world stage and develop relationships with African leaders. He was the one who had strategically planned for Ali to visit Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East, and now the Black Muslims had stolen his friend and his plan. But Malcolm was not ready to give up on Ali yet. Desperate to reach him, he telephoned Ali eight times that day, but he could not get through the men who surrounded the champ. In a phone interview, Ali told a reporter from the Amsterdam News that he still intended to tour Africa, but added, “I will not be traveling with Malcolm X.”

After Malcolm announced his official break from the Nation, more reporters called Ali to learn about his future. He said that he disagreed with Malcolm’s sanguinary rhetoric. “I am against violence,” the boxer 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.”

In front of newsmen at his Phoenix home, Muhammad wept, feigning disbelief over Malcolm’s departure. “I am stunned,” he professed. “I never dreamed this man would deviate from the Nation of Islam. Every one of the Muslims admired him.” Muhammad’s tears gave the impression that Malcolm had left the Nation under his own free will. Acting deserted and betrayed, Muhammad seemed to grieve the loss of a man whom he once considered his own flesh and blood, the same man that he had blamed for poisoning the Nation with lies about him.

That same afternoon, March 10, Captain Joseph, Maceo X, and a squad from the Fruit showed up at Malcolm’s East Elmhurst home on 97th Street in Queens. Joseph served Malcolm with eviction papers and demanded that he surrender some of the mosque’s valuables. Malcolm handed over a few documents and securities from the Nation’s treasury, but he refused to leave the house. Muhammad had once told him that the house was his, even though the deed showed that the home was the legal property of the Nation of Islam. The moment Captain Joseph showed up at his doorstep, Malcolm regretted ever taking a vow of poverty and determined that he would fight back.

Malcolm knew that this was only the beginning. The war had just begun. “They’ve got to kill me,” he told a reporter. “They can’t afford to let me live.”

Excerpted from "Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X" by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith. Published by Basic Books. Copyright 2016 by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Randy Roberts

Randy Roberts is a distinguished professor of history at Purdue University. An award-winning author, he has written biographies of iconic athletes and celebrities, including Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Bear Bryant, and John Wayne. Roberts lives in Lafayette, Indiana.

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By Johnny Smith

Johnny Smith is an assistant professor of American history at Georgia Tech. He is the author of The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty that Changed College Basketball. Smith lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Books Boxing Cassius Clay Islam Malcolm X Muhammad Ali Muslims Race Religion Sports