In the beginning, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. carried himself somewhat humbly, at least compared to the dazzling public rhapsodist he would later become. It was 1960, and Clay was only 18 years old, an amateur, trying to make a name for himself. He had been named after his father, who had been named after a white abolitionist. Following a technically nimble defeat of Polish lightweight Zbigniew Pietrzykowski at the Summer Olympics in Rome, Clay claimed unambigious love for the nation he represented: "To me, the U.S.A. is still the best country in the world, counting yours," he told a Soviet reporter during a post-fight interview. It was the middle of the Cold War. Americans took notice of the disorienting fighting style of the Louisville black kid with the incongruously noble Roman name.
That same year, back in America, the young fighter was invited to attend a service at a mosque by Abdul Rahman Muhammad, a Muslim minister. "The things he said really shook me up," Clay — by then Ali — remembered in his 2004 autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey, written with the help of his daughter. "Things such as that the Black man was the original man on earth and how we 20 million Black people in America (at that time) didn't know our real identities or even our original names. ... As I continued to listen, I hoped that nobody would ever hit me in the ring as hard as this brother minister was doing right now." He later discovered the white abolitionist who was his once-removed namesake had never wavered from his belief in the biological superiority of the "white race," even while he fought to end slavery.
We know Muhammad Ali primarily by the "slave name" he shunned and the religious name he embraced, given to him in 1964 by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. (Though much of this piece documents his life prior to his name change, I will primarily be referring to Ali by his chosen name.) But there were others. The five years following the 1960 Olympics saw a series of identity shifts for the young Ali, as he began to be called, and call himself, different things. Some names were given to him by the jocular ceremony of professional boxing, like The Louisville Lip and The Champ. Another, The Greatest, Ali bestowed on himself. All the while, he playfully eviscerated his opponents by giving them nicknames of their own during his legendary post-fight boasts: Buster Mathis was The Dancing Hippo, Floyd Patterson was The Rabbit, a bald Earnie Shavers was The Acorn, and so on.
Ali quelled this flamboyance in certain private spaces. He first encountered Malcolm X in 1962 at a Nation of Islam meeting in Detroit. The men would become friends for two years, through visits to their training camps and mosques, respectively. Ali's impression of Malcolm X was thick with the sort of deference and awe the then-20-year-old usually reserved for himself: "I had driven up from Miami to Chicago to hear Elijah Muhammad address a large meeting, but Malcolm was the highlight of the evening for me," he later recalled in The Soul of a Butterfly. "He carried the message that there was a special religion for the Black man. He was a charismatic speaker, and when he spoke, he could hold you spellbound for hours."
The impression Malcolm X left first challenged and then emboldened Ali. For a brief time, the most famous black man in America had fashioned an identity influenced by the most dangerous man in America. Before he was Muhammad Ali, he was Cassius X.
As authors Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith detail in their book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, this relationship was brief but life-defining. In 1961, before meeting Malcolm X — and before he started publicly associating himself with either the Civil Rights Movement or the Nation of Islam — Ali said, "I'm a boxer, and I really don't want anything to do with the civil rights program right now."
According to Ali's later autobiography, as a child, the image of Emmett Till's corpse, bloated in its casket, haunted him. The 1962 murder of Ronald Stokes by the LAPD had chilled him as an adolescent. Through the guidance of Malcolm X, Ali received the clarified version of a worldview he couldn't previously articulate. By extension, the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, provided the tentpoles of a stable organization for Ali to join. The man who was focused on demolishing others in the ring was searching for fraternity, and for God, outside of it. Malcolm X's own identity evolution during the '50s was drastic: A former drug dealer who had gone by the name Detroit Red, Malcolm X had been both spiritually saved and politically empowered by the Nation of Islam, proving to Ali that any station could be escaped by the grace of Allah. And to find God, Ali had to find God's men.
"He was my mentor, my older brother," Ali wrote of Malcolm X in his autobiography. Ali was perhaps born lyrically dexterous, but he gained his language of political liberation and prodigious faith from Malcolm X and the Nation. And there's a perceptible shift in Ali's physicality after Malcolm X entered his life. He speaks with unbraced militancy, he builds complex arguments with the strategic clarity of a minister. His subjects expand from the supremacy of his skill to the supremacy of the state. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali's physician at the time, told the authors of Blood Brothers that "Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali were like brothers. It was almost as if they were in love with each other."
The condition of the black athlete in America dramatizes what's expected of all black citizenry — that they distance from full self-possession, instead seeing themselves through the limiting, humiliating perspective of white supremacy. W.E.B. Du Bois called this "double consciousness." American spectators, betting on, measuring, and evaluating black bodies in play, demand that survival also serves as entertainment. Decades after Ali's dominance in the sport, becoming an athlete still remains one of the main paths to some type of respect for black men in America. With the help of Malcolm X, Ali grew more comfortable demanding that America let him be. In February of 1964, Cassius Clay Jr. publically declared his disassociation from American names, adopting the "X." This was also the first time Cassius X told the world he practiced the Muslim faith, and he did so by invoking the embattled name of his mentor. Just a few days earlier, Malcolm X had silently watched his spiritual student conquer Sonny Liston, and then the entire country, in one fell swoop.
To the outside world, the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X were identified as dangerous political agents with one goal: threatening the supremacy of the American public through (perceived) militant Islam and black separatism. The mainstream Civil Rights Movement, too, denounced the organization's tactics. The Nation's inner turmoil, though, was a struggle of egos more than spiritual ideology. As Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X grew increasingly distanced from each other's sense of militancy, Ali, the Nation's greatest potential ambassador, became a useful pawn. Ali had to decide whether he would be aligned with his mentor or his mentor's former organization. The betrayal was swift, according to Ali: "I was forced to make a choice when Elijah Muhammad insisted that I break with Malcolm. I was on a tour of Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. I saw Malcolm in Ghana where he stopped before returning to America. When he turned to greet me, I turned away, making our break public." Elijah Muhammad officially gave him the name Muhammad Ali just a few weeks after his championship victory in 1964. Malcolm X, then el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was assassinated less than a year later.
The day Muhammad Ali became Muhammad Ali is remembered as a display of political bravery and religious diligence, but the day he declared that he was Cassius X barely registers. The more famous name change, following the win of a lifetime, said something glorious about how the marginalized could rewrite their lives in America. No wonder Ali's decision reverberates with power decades later, especially to the black and Muslim people of the world who hold on to the sanctity of identity.
But though Ali's declaration of self through faith was preceded by years of personal introspection and learning through political and spiritual friendships, there was unexpected loss accompanying the gains. For those who had known and loved him as he originally was, his shedding of names were a little like deaths, a celebrity's dismissal of heritage. Ali's father was hurt by his rejection of their shared moniker; Malcolm X and Ali never reconciled. For Ali, the teacher nonetheless became sealed to his journey of faith: "I might never have become a Muslim if it hasn't been for Malcolm," he wrote. "If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him."