“Young, black, righteous, unapologetic, famous.”
Those exact words, in that exact phrasing, quite likely were not spoken by the newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world on the night of 25 February 1964. But in the Regina King-directed film ‘One Night in Miami’, adapted from the celebrated Kemp Powers play of the same name, the description is gifted to be spoken by the mouth of a 22-year-old Cassius Clay. It is entirely fitting for The Greatest and his three friends who would join him that evening in that tiny pocket in Florida for a historic soirée.
Following a seventh-round victory over Sonny Liston in the Miami Beach convention hall, Clay had retreated to a safe space - Room 38 at the Hampton Hotel - with three other companions: the singer Sam Cooke, the NFL star Jim Brown, and Malcolm X.
The contents of their hotel room conversation are ultimately unknown, shared solely amongst the four. Four African American men who each were, or became regarded, as a most significant figure in their individual cultural sphere. Their meeting took place in the most tumultuous but consequential period of the civil rights movement in the 20th century United States.
“America racially in 1964 was embarrassing,” recounted Brown, the last remaining survivor of that quartet, in an interview marking the film’s 2020 release. “Quality didn’t count, fairness didn’t count. All around me black people were being discriminated against. That was the nature of the country at that particular time.
“I don’t exactly remember when I met Ali but it was before ‘64. He was always in a good mood. When you talk about Malcolm X, that’s a historical figure, and Sam Cooke was a unique talent but he had a consciousness that he wanted to make this a better world. He joined the forces, became an activist, and put his butt on the line.”
Clay, at 22 years old, had just become the heavyweight champion of the world by upsetting the odds to dominate Liston in the Sunshine State. It was his presence and voice outside of the ring, however, that would transform The Louisville Lip into The Greatest, the man who shook up the world. And the influence was no greater than Malcolm X.
Malcolm X was 16 years his elder, the oldest of the four at 38. Both he and Cooke would be dead within a year, both murdered. In December, Cooke was shot dead in a Los Angeles motel, and two months later Malcolm was assassinated by men affiliated to the Nation of Islam. But it would be this triptych, the boxer, the civil rights leader, and the African American political and religious movement that would lead Muhammad Ali on the path from pugilist to pariah to phenomenon.
As told in Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, Clay first met Malcolm after answering the telephone one day in early June 1962. On the other end was Sam Saxon, calling to invite him and his brother Rudy to Detroit for a Black Muslim rally, and saying there was someone very important he wanted Cassius to meet.
And so it was on Sunday 10 June that Malcolm X, sitting on a back table of a luncheonette, was approached by a 6 ft 5 inch, 250lb figure. Holding out his hand, the figure declared, “I’m Cassius Clay.”
“Up to that moment . . . I had never heard of him,” Malcolm said later, “Ours were two entirely different worlds.” They spoke only briefly, as Malcolm had only a few minutes to finish preparing his opening remarks for the rally, but Clay’s enthusiasm and aura, their reciprocal intrigue after this Detroit dalliance, meant that they would be spending a lot more time together over the next few years. But only a few years it would be.
Clay had become fascinated with the Nation but at increasing risk to his career, with the US government vigorously investigating the organisation, the FBI considering it a threat to American security for its anti-white, separatist views.
As Clay dominated Liston in February ‘64, Malcolm was in the crowd celebrating. The pair, Brown, and Cooke then spent the night holed up in the Hampton Hotel, eating ice cream and putting the world to rights. Several days after his victory, the boxer announced his membership in the Nation of Islam, and changed his name first from Cassius Clay to Cassius X then to Muhammad Ali, a name chosen for him by the Nation of Islam’s leader Elijah Muhammad.
But it was Malcolm who made him conscious. “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want,” Ali told reporters at the time of his definitive announcement. “I believe Allah is God. I think this is the true way to save the world, which is on fire with hate.” Malcolm X declared that Clay would “mean more to his people than any athlete before him”.
Ali’s identity transcended boxing, so much so that it has become attached to him more than he was attached to it. He was also the prominent figurehead of the Nation of Islam. But it came at a cost: his friendship with Malcolm X.
“Turning my back on Malcolm,” wrote Ali in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly, “was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance.”
When Ali announced his name change, Malcolm X had become disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad and broke away, urging Ali to join him.
“Malcolm and I were so close and had been through so much,” wrote Ali. “But there were many things for me to consider.” Elijah Muhammad, he said, had conferred the name Muhammad Ali - meaning beloved of God - on him.
“I felt that he had set me free!” the boxer recalled in 2004, “I was proud of my name and dedicated to the Nation of Islam as Elijah presented it. At that point in my journey, I just wasn’t ready to question his teaching.”
Instead, in line with Nation of Islam politics, Ali decided to “see Africa and meet my brothers and sisters”. He arrived in Ghana just as Malcolm X was visiting, on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca, meeting by chance outside the Ambassador Hotel in the capital Accra.
“He was wearing the traditional Muslim white robes,” wrote Ali, “further signifying his break with Elijah Muhammad. He walked with a cane that looked like a prophet’s stick and he wore a beard. I thought he’d gone too far.
“When he came up to greet me I turned away, making our break public.”
Ali would not have a shot at redemption. On 21 February 1965 Malcolm X, the man who had stood beside him on the day the newly-crowned 22-year-old heavyweight champion of the world announced that he was no longer Cassius Clay, was assassinated as he gave a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
Filled with regret, Ali later came to see him as “a visionary, ahead of us all.”
“Malcolm was the first to discover the truth, that colour doesn’t make a man a devil,” Ali wrote. “It is the heart, soul and mind that define a person.
“Malcolm X was a great thinker and an even greater friend. I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm.
“If I could go back and do it all over again, I would never have turned my back on him.”