Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The boxer and a man named X

I've never been a fan of boxing and I'm no expert on the Civil Rights era, but Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X was a very compelling read.  Malcolm X was a minister for the Nation of Islam (NOI) and basically a black supremacist who believed segregation was essential.  Cassius Clay was a talented young boxer with a big mouth (early on he was nicknamed "The Louisville Lip") and a gift for self-promotion.  Their unlikely friendship, however, had dangerous results for both of them.

Malcolm X disagreed with the non-confrontational and patient "we shall overcome" approach of Martin Luther King, advocating instead for violent means if necessary to secure respect and rights for blacks.  A former thug with a prison record, he changed his ways and became an important figure in the NOI.  He was known as "The Messenger" for his captivating speaking ability and his fierce loyalty to Elijah Muhammad, the frail but self-proclaimed prophet of the NOI.

Cassius Clay was a rising star in the boxing world.  After winning a gold medal at the Rome Olympics, he commenced a professional boxing career, winning most of his fights by knockout.  After meeting a flamboyant wrestler named Gorgeous George, he adopted a loud and egotistical style and frequently proclaimed he was "the Greatest" or "the King of the World."  In truth, he was really a quiet and thoughtful person who strongly believed in clean living.  He was drawn to the doctrines of the NOI because of his father's warnings about the evils of white people and a budding friendship with Malcolm X.

At the time Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, Malcolm's standing in the NOI was declining.  He was bothered that the NOI didn't take a more aggressive stance on black rights.  He also felt they exploited poor blacks by forcing them to purchase and sell copies of the NOI's newspaper.  Furthermore, he had learned of Elijah Muhammad's many infidelities, including fathering a number of illegitimate children.  Clay, however, became caught in the middle between Malcolm and Elijah, both of whom attempted to manipulate him.  When Malcolm was ousted from the movement, Elijah pulled Clay into his inner circle and honored him by replacing his "slave name" with a new name: Muhammad Ali.

This is a fascinating look at the lives of both men and their relationship with the NOI – a relationship that eventually cost Malcolm X his life.  I remember watching part of the fights with Leon Spinks as a kid in 1978, but knew nothing of Ali's controversial past.  I knew even less about Malcolm X, and was surprised at his extreme racism prior to his split with the NOI.  Honestly, neither of the men come off as very likeable, but the authors do a very good job of illustrating the reasons behind their views and it's easy to understand why they felt as they did.  It's an interesting book, and I frequently found I could hardly put it down.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)