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Editor’s note: In his eye-opening new book, “Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream,” Jack Cashill un-tells what may be the most mis-told story of the late 20th century – the heroic rise of boxer Muhammad Ali. This re-telling sheds bright new light on some slighted boxing greats like Joe Louis, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and reveals the surprising role that Christianity has played in the sports culture. Today, we cover part 4 in this special 10-part series.
“Turning my back on Malcolm,” says Muhammad Ali 40 years after the fact, “was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.” To his credit, Ali has come to grips with this tragic misstep, at least partially. His faithful, however, have not. To maintain both Ali and Malcolm X in the same unstable pantheon – an astonishing bit of myth juggling – they have had to gloss over an all but unforgivable act of treachery.
Malcolm X died on Feb. 21, 1965, just four days short of the first anniversary of Ali’s surprise conquest of Sonny Liston. Ali’s victory in 1964, in fact, greased the wheels then already in motion that would lead to Malcolm’s death. Had Ali been wiser, or more mature, he – and perhaps he alone – could have thrown a wrench into the whole ugly mechanism.
When Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell at the beginning of the seventh round, the honorable Elijah Muhammad had something of a revelation. In a heartbeat, he decided that perhaps boxing wasn’t such an unworthy enterprise after all. Immediately after the fight, he called Ali and courted him hard.
At a press conference the day after the Liston fight, Ali announced his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and shared with the world his new name. That name makes for a good trivia question. Despite Howard Cosell’s claim to the contrary, it was not originally Muhammad Ali. It was Cassius X. The rejection of “Clay” horrified his parents, especially his father, whose name had been devalued in every sense of the word.
A day later, speaking to 5,000 followers at the annual Nation of Islam convention, Elijah Muhammad joyously announced that “Clay whipped a much tougher man and came through the bout unscarred because he has accepted Muhammad as the messenger of Allah.”
This turnabout dismayed Malcolm and his wife, Betty Shabazz. Shabazz remembers all too well the denunciations of Ali before the fight, the hysteria about how he would “bring disgrace to the Nation of Islam,” and on and on. “All of a sudden,” she recalls, “they were breaking their necks, trying to get close to the heavyweight champion.”
In the Nation of Islam one would receive an “original name” – i.e. an Arabic name – only after mythic founder Master Wallace Fard returned from wherever it was he had gone. Thus, even after his years of dedicated service, Malcolm remained merely Malcolm X. But the Nation of Islam, “bendable” as it was, made an exception for an unschooled 22-year-old in a “filthy” profession. On a March 6 radio broadcast from Chicago, Elijah Muhammad gave the young boxer his new name, Muhammad Ali. In fact, Elijah Muhammad used the name as bait to lure Cassius X away from his mentor, the rebellious Malcolm.
At first, the name did not exactly take. When, for instance, Ali attended a fight at Madison Square Garden soon after his name change, Harry Markson, president of the Garden’s boxing program, refused to introduce him as “Muhammad Ali.” “We’ve made so much progress in eliminating color barriers,” said Markson at the time, justifying his decision, “that it’s a pity we’re now facing such a problem, the heavyweight champion of the world preaching a hate religion.”
Cosell, that critical interpreter of the Ali myth, claims that he alone acknowledged the new name “instantly.” He adds, “I could have cared less what the public’s reaction would be towards me.” To Cosell, it made perfect sense for Ali to change his name. No “intelligent proud black in the 1960s” would want to keep a “slave name.” That Cosell changed his own name from the proudly Jewish “Cohen” to the more ambiguous “Cosell” is explained away as a historical rectification.
As Cosell and others retell the story, it was only brave and tolerant souls like themselves who accepted Ali’s turn toward Islam. In 1964, however, Ali did not embrace Islam. He embraced the Nation of Islam, a cult that preached segregation, fantasized about genocide, and horrified the serious civil-rights liberals of that era, black and white. “When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims,” said Martin Luther King, “he became a champion of racial segregation and that is what we are fighting against.”
Appropriately enough, one person who did support Ali’s conversion was arch-segregationist, Georgia Sen. Richard Russell. “Cassius Clay,” said Russell from the floor of the U.S. Senate, “in common with 180 million other American citizens, has the right to join the religious sect of his choice without being blackmailed, harassed and threatened with the severe punishment of being deprived of the heavyweight championship.”
In his 1970 autobiography, coauthored by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times’ columnist Dave Anderson, Sugar Ray Robinson recounts a conversation from this era that nicely captures the nation’s ethos. As he tells it, Robinson invited the new champ down to Jamaica to serve as a celebrity trainer at a Robinson fight. One night, he and his wife, Millie, were sitting poolside with Ali and his new wife, Sonji, when a shooting star passed through the heavens. Upon seeing it, Ali leaped up and shouted, without a hint of irony, “The white man is destroying the world.”
He explained to Robinson that only Allah and his Messenger, Elijah Muhammad, could save the world from destruction and pleaded with him to join the saved. As an incentive, Ali continued, the Messenger was prepared to lay $700,000 on him, one dollar from each Muslim in America.
Robinson was unimpressed. He told a chagrined Ali that he would not join the Nation of Islam for $7 million. “You know your slogan – ‘The white man is a devil, the white devils’ – that’s not right. You can’t live in this world hating people,” said Robinson. He reminded Ali that he was a Christian: “All the Christian religions preach love for your fellow man.” This message had to have rankled the Black Muslims. It is no wonder they cleansed Sugar Ray Robinson from the mythic account.
“Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream” is the latest work of hard-hitting author and WND contributor Jack Cashill, and is the first comprehensive, pull-no-punches account of America’s least likely icon.
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