- Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts, Johnny Smith
On October 5, 2015, Sports Illustrated featured Muhammad Ali as the cover-page personality for the thirty-ninth time. Only Michael Jordan—with fifty—has received more recognition. The cover was to celebrate Ali receiving the first Sports Illustrated Muhammad [End Page 244] Ali Legacy Award. This award, to be given each December, is designed to honor a distinguished sports figure who has made sports a launching pad to create a better and improved world. Tim Layden, in an overview of the seventy-three-year-old boxer, points to what he feels shaped Ali’s maximum impact. He is “beloved for taking on his mighty government all those years ago.” Layden describes Ali today taking solace from watching his 1960 TV interviews: “images of a young man full of words and thoughts, shouted to a world unprepared for his spirit.”
Blood Brothers is an apt title for a book that analyzes the complex relationship between extraordinary individuals: one a talented and charismatic athlete, the other a controversial and polarizing political figure. Both had their blood spilled: Ali in the ring and Malcolm X, in February 1965, with his assassination.
Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith do much more than pen a reworking of a modern morality tale about a deep and profound friendship that eventually fragmented and disintegrated. By exploring untapped sources, including Malcolm’s personal papers and FBI records, the authors craft a narrative that has all of the compelling heft of a gripping piece of fiction. There are elements of genuine affection, yet the relationship is often tense and full of intrigue.
Their story lines are, still today, riveting. Cassius Clay in 1962 becomes heavyweight champion of the world. Malcom X, a firebrand Nation of Islam minister, sees in Clay a marvelous conduit to promote the ethos and beliefs of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm masterminds Clay’s rebirth as Muhammad Ali and, at the same time, positions himself as the most recognizable figure within the Nation of Islam. The special bond between Malcolm and Ali is cut when Malcolm falls out of favor with the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm’s criticisms of Elijah Muhammad ended his friendship with Ali.
Randy Roberts, a distinguished professor of history at Purdue, has written not one, but many, boxing biographies—Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis—that are no less than brilliant. Blood Sports (Roberts and Smith) continues this formidable collection, and their epilogue, “Once the Hat Is Gone,” is sterling writing. The following concluding paragraph says it all:
In the year and half before Cassius won the heavyweight crown, Malcolm consciously molded him into Muhammad Ali. Cassius adopted Malcom’s rhetoric, mimicked his delivery, and copied his cool, regal pose. He became, as a few journalists dimly sensed, a clone of his mentor. Always adept at imitation, Clay could slide into his Cassius X persona at a moment’s notice, dispensing Malcolm’s ideas and words like a seasoned actor.(311)