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Muhammad Ali & Malcolm X: Inside Fatal Friendship of Two Men Who Changed the World

Esther NJeri
Sep 09, 2021
03:00 P.M.
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They went down in history books as heroes that stood up for people of color. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were also friends, but what happened during their brief yet extremely impactful relationship?


At a time when America was still in the throes of racial inequity, Mohammed Ali, who at the time went by his birth name Cassius Clay, was in his 20's and was thriving in his career as a boxer, having won the Golden Glove title on two accounts.

He was putting a lot of work into bagging the envied boxing heavyweight championship. He subscribed to the Islamic faith and got his teachings from regional ministers. He, albeit unknowingly, was about to have an encounter that would change history.

Professional boxer Muhammad Ali and civil rights activist Malcolm X | Source: Getty Images



Malcolm X was a charismatic and energetic civil rights leader and a Nation of Islam spokesman. He was also a minister at Mosque No. 7 in New York City.

Sam Saxon, Clay's recruiter, took him to an NOI rally headed by Elijah Muhammed, but he would get to meet Malcolm X before that.


Clay, having grown up in segregated Kentucky, had listened to one of Malcolm X's explosive speeches about the humiliations and sufferings brought about by an unequal society, and he greatly admired him. He said of Malcolm:

"My first impression of Malcolm X was how could a Black man talk about the government and white people and act so bold and not be shot at? He was fearless. That really attracted me."


Theirs was a brotherhood, and Clay looked up to Malcolm as a mentor. Malcolm was concerned with Clay's personal development both in his faith and career as a boxer.


Malcolm supported Clay's career by assigning him an associate to help him in his day-to-day affairs, and Clay returned the favor by toning down on his arrogance.


Malcolm and Muhammad's relationship started going downhill after Malcolm questioned Muhammad's response to extrajudicial killings and rumors of his extramarital affairs.


On the other hand, Muhammad started considering Malcolm uncontrollable and untrustworthy. In 1963, Muhammad instructed Malcolm to stay silent concerning J. F. Kennedy's assassination, and in 1964, Malcolm was stripped of all of his responsibilities.

Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X speaking at a rally | Source: Getty Images


In February of 1965, Malcolm was shot when giving a speech in New York.

But Malcolm, who was looking forward to supporting Clay in the awaited championship battle, knew he had leverage, and once Clay won, he would regain fame and continue his fight against black oppression.

Clay spoke out his mind upon his win, declaring his Islamic orientation and speaking against racial integration. Malcolm finally thought that his lessons over the past few months were finally impacting the young Clay.


What he did not realize at the time, however, is that Muhammad had already warned Clay to steer clear of Malcolm. To a third party, Clay declared his allegiance to the NOI leader Muhammad.


After his victory, Clay was accompanied by Malcolm to the United Nations to meet African delegates, and that evening Muhammad reminded Clay of his allegiance over a radio message. He also bestowed on Clay a new name Muhammad Ali, saying:

"This Clay name has no divine meaning, Muhammad Ali is what I will give to him as long as he believes in Allah and follows me."


The brief, and only, meeting between Malcolm X (1925-1965) and Martin Luther King (1929-1968), in the halls of the US Capitol, attending a Senate hearing on the Civil Rights Act, Washington DC, 26th March 1964. | Source: Getty Images


After the radio message Malcolm and Ali's relationship was done for, Ali became NOI's most famous proponent, while Malcolm started receiving threats from his former confederates.


In February of 1965, Malcolm was shot when he gave a speech in New York. Three of his former associates at the NOI were convicted of his murder.

Malcolm X's daughter, Attallah, speaks with Muhammad Ali as they attend the Miami Art Basel Taschen book premiere of Muhammad Ali's book, "GOAT - Greatest Of All Time" at the Miami Convention Center December 6, 2003 in Miami, Florida.| Source: Getty Images


And yet, Ali seemed unmoved by Malcolm's death, even though he would later reveal how much he'd regretted not taking Malcolm's side against Muhammad. He referred to Malcolm as a visionary and wished he'd gotten the chance to say he was sorry for betraying him.

Malcolm will always be remembered for his enthusiastic battle towards educating the black community on fighting for their own power and wealth, never relenting until he took his last breath.

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