Muhammad Ali And Malcolm X: A Broken Friendship, An Enduring Legacy : Code Switch A new book, Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, explores how faith brought two African-American icons together and eventually tore their relationship apart.
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Muhammad Ali And Malcolm X: A Broken Friendship, An Enduring Legacy

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Muhammad Ali And Malcolm X: A Broken Friendship, An Enduring Legacy

Muhammad Ali And Malcolm X: A Broken Friendship, An Enduring Legacy

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On this day in 1964, a young boxer stepped into the ring as a contender and stepped out of it a champion. Cassius Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. It also marked a turning point in Clay's relationship with another leading figure of that era - black nationalist Malcolm X. Their connection is explored in the new book "Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali And Malcolm X." Here's Karen Grigsby Bates Bates from NPR's Code Switch team.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Malcolm and Ali are solo names globally recognized now. But in the early '60s, Malcolm X was the better known for his separatist views and his stinging criticism of American racism.

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MALCOLM X: Black people in this country have been the victims of violence at the hands of the white man for 400 years.

BATES: In "Blood Brothers," historian Randy Roberts says for many Americans, Malcolm X was more notorious than famous.

RANDY ROBERTS: You've got to remember at this time, the Nation of Islam is viewed by most Americans - particularly white Americans - as a hate organization.

BATES: While Ali, whose birth name was Cassius Clay, wasn't feared, he was dismissed as a cocky athlete.

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ALI: I'm way ahead of schedule. My time and my act would say the name is poor, the man is is flat-footed, the man don't stand a chance, the stage has been set.

BATES: Malcolm and Clay first met in May 1962 at a Nation of Islam rally in Detroit where Malcolm was the opening speaker. They each came away impressed. Historian and co-author Johnny Smith says young Cassius had never heard a black man speak like Malcolm.

JOHNNY SMITH: There was this confidence, this authority that Malcolm offered, you know, when he spoke at the podium that day. And it made a profound impression on young Cassius Clay.

BATES: Malcolm was struck by the young boxer's magnetism. He believed people could be drawn to the Nation by Clay's swagger.

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ALI: I'm a poet. I'm the prophet. I'm the resurrector (ph). I'm the savior of the boxing world. If it wasn't for me, the game would be dead.

BATES: They developed a warm friendship. Malcolm was part big brother, part father figure to young Cassius. And Cassius, searching for a spiritual home, found it in Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. Randy Roberts says initially, the boxer didn't advertise his relationship with Malcolm because the Nation of Islam terrified much of America, including the civil rights establishment and the boxing industry.

ROBERTS: If he's a member of this organization, his career is over. You can write him off. He will never get a shot at the championship.

BATES: So Clay continued to learn about the nation and adopted some of its practices, like giving up pork, quietly. In the weigh-in before his match with world heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, Clay only talked about the fight, not his faith.

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ALI: I'm young; I'm handsome; I'm fast; I'm pretty and can't possibly be beat. If you like to lose your money, be a fool and bet on Sonny.

BATES: Clay predicted he'd beat Liston in eight rounds - wrong. He beat him in seven.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And what's happened - Clay has won. Clay has won.

BATES: The day after his victory over Liston, Clay announced he was indeed a member of the Nation of Islam. A month later, he would become Muhammad Ali and remain an activist athlete. He and Malcolm openly continued their friendship. But Malcolm's stock in the Nation and with its founder Elijah Muhammad was slipping just as Ali's fame was beginning to soar. Johnny Smith.

SMITH: There are people that are close to Elijah Muhammad who think, you know, we don't really need Malcolm X, especially now that we have the heavyweight champion, who can be a better spokesman for us.

BATES: Malcolm left the Nation of Islam after he discovered Elijah Muhammad had several children by his young secretaries, and he went public with the discovery. That shattered his friendship with Ali. The two never repaired the rift. They met physically only once more when they ended up on the same plaza in Accra, Ghana. Johnny Smith.

SMITH: Their eyes meet. And at that moment, Malcolm says brother Muhammad - he's got this half smile on his face - and Muhammad Ali just stone-faced says brother Malcolm, you shouldn't have crossed the honorable Elijah Muhammad. And he essentially walks away from him.

BATES: Malcolm, by then a marked man, was assassinated early the next year. Randy Roberts says that moment in Accra haunted Ali.

ROBERTS: One of his greatest regrets is that he never patched it up with Malcolm, that he didn't tell Malcolm how important Malcolm was to him, that he wasn't able to explain that really without Malcolm, he would never have become Muhammad Ali.

BATES: The friendship between the two was ended, but the fusion of politics and sports that Ali and Malcolm began continues to this day. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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