By Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Basic Books, Hardcover, $28.99, 392 Pages
An Important Book About Two Flawed Men Who Influenced History And Boxing
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
There have been more books written about Muhammad Ali than any other boxer, perhaps more than any other athlete. The vast majority of these books play into the Ali myth that has been orchestrated for years by many in the press as well as the former champ’s own publicity machine. Every so often an author digs in and takes an unbiased look at this very complicated man, and the truth is more interesting than the myth.
Two of these books, Mark Kram’s The Ghosts of Manila and Jack Cashill’s Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream, are among the best when it comes to uncovering the puzzle of understanding the real Muhammad Ali. Joining these works is the meticulously researched Blood Brothers by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith.
Delving into previously unviewed FBI files, the personal papers of Malcolm X, the notes of Alex Haley, and interviews from the past and present, the authors have written an important history of not only a tragic relationship, but also of the Nation of Islam (The Black Muslims) as well as a very interesting account of Cassius Clay’s early boxing career up to his bouts with Sonny Liston.
Malcolm and Cassius first met in 1962.Clay, after winning Olympic Gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, was making a name for himself by not only winning fights, but by his unique self promotion influenced by the wrestler Gorgeous George. Malcolm had no interest in sports believing it was just another way that the white establishment exploited the black man in America. However, he was immediately taken by the young contender. In many ways they were similar in that both were outspoken, charismatic, and couldn’t resist the limelight. Malcolm also recognized what an asset Clay could be to the Nation. Having a popular and well-spoken athlete coming out in support of and even joining the Muslims would surely attract many new and young members. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation didn’t share this view. He not only was not interested in athletes, he also believed Clay was going to be destroyed when he stepped into the ring against Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston. That would certainly not look good for the Muslims.
Roberts and Smith explain how Malcolm had from the beginning unwavering confidence that Clay would not only win the title, but would go on to become the Nation’s greatest asset. While he would prove to be right, it would also be his undoing.
Most people believe the Black Muslims are part of the Islamic religion practice throughout the world. In reality, under Elijah Muhammad, it was a Black Nationalist and separatist movement that was very much at odds with the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Muhammad considered King an Uncle Tom who was being subservient to the white establishment by demanding African Americans be fully integrated into society. The Muslims were envisioning an armed revolution with the goal of retribution and creating their own state.
There is much in this book that will make those who have looked up to Muhammad Ali as a great civil rights leader uncomfortable. For a large part of his career Clay/Ali preached separation of the races, though it can be argued his belief in this was not very deep but more of a young man taken in by a cult. It may have also been driven by fear. When asked why he was not joining in on the marches and demonstrations with Dr. King he responded that he did not want to go to a place where he would have dogs set upon him, be clubbed by the police, or worse. Also, once he was involved with the Nation he quickly learned about the punishment, quite often brutal, they would handout to those who did not stay in line.
It can also be questioned just how deep the friendship between Malcolm and Cassius was. The two were certainly very drawn to each other, but as much as Malcolm felt affection for Clay he also knew he would be a useful tool in advancing the cause and also Malcolm’s own stature within the Nation.
For Clay, Malcolm served as a father figure one who could teach the barely literate boxer how to speak out on issues, even if he didn’t understand what he was talking about some of the time.
Malcolm’s biggest miscalculation was in believing his friendship and mentoring of Clay would protect him from retribution when he stepped beyond his bounds with the Nation. After Clay defeated Liston Elijah Muhammad also came to the realization of how useful Clay, upon whom he now bestowed the name of Muhammad Ali, would be to the Nation not only for propaganda purposes but as a financial asset.
Boxing has always been a shady sport with underworld figures in the background controlling and robbing fighters. Ali, who may have thought he was escaping being exploited by gangsters, had come under the control of another mob filled with hit men and leg breakers.
When Elijah Muhammad turned on Malcolm, Malcolm saw Ali as his protection only to have the champion turn his back on him. Ali joined in the chorus of those who wanted Malcolm punished and worse. Their friendship meant nothing to him any longer. He had a new father figure to please in Elijah.
The authors’ very detailed account of Malcolm’s last days, constantly under threat of assassination, is harrowing. Incidents such as when his home is firebombed while he, his wife, and two daughters are sleeping, make you feel what it is like to be a hunted man with very few friends.
A couple of minor points on the content. The authors describe the Nigerian born Hogan Kid Bassey as former world bantamweight champion. Bassey held the featherweight title. In the chapter about the lead to Clay’s first fight with Liston they say that Sonny stood to make millions from the fight. I don’t recall any heavyweight champ from that era making millions from one bout. I would be curious to know how they determined that figure. Neither of these two items takes anything away from this very fine book.
This is an important book that will leave you rethinking your opinion of Muhammad Ali.It is in no way an attack on one of the greatest fighters of all time. It is an unbiased look at a flawed human being and a tragic friendship that will leave you asking. What if?