Muhammad Ali in 1966.
February 25, 1964, is a day that should be recognized as a pivot upon which a great deal of sports history—and world history—turned.
A young boxer named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. won the heavyweight championship of the world in shocking fashion, by defeating the heavily favored and allegedly unstoppable Charles “Sonny” Liston. But that is not what makes February 25 such a seminal moment.
To understand the importance of that day, you need to look at what happened after the fight. Clay did not party or celebrate or, as his managers had feared, spend the night in the hospital. Instead, he sat in his hotel room to eat ice cream with some interesting company: musical legend Sam Cooke, football star Jim Brown, and a gentleman by the name of Malcolm X. They had not gathered just for the ice cream. Clay was considering a decision that was already a rumor in the newspapers: that he would join the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist, separatist force in sharp opposition to the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr.
The next day, Clay announced to the world that he would join the Nation of Islam, saying, “I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blown up. They get hit by the stones and chewed by dogs and then these crackers blow up a Negro church. . . . People are always telling me what a good example I would be if I just wasn’t Muslim. I’ve heard over and over why couldn’t I just be more like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well they are gone, and the black man’s condition is just the same ain’t it? We’re still catching hell.”
Through Cassius Clay’s transformation first to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali, he radicalized the black freedom struggle and became the most famous draft resister and anti-war activist in the world.
A series of interviews that I conducted with Jim Brown in his California home brought that famous night into even sharper perspective for me. Brown painted a picture of Malcolm X trying to figure out if the future Muhammad Ali would join him in his imminent exodus from the Nation of Islam.
But Brown said to me, “Muhammad Ali was a free thinker. Don’t let anyone ever tell you about him—he was nobody’s monkey. I say that because many assume that he was a puppet of the Nation. No, he wasn’t no puppet. He had a mind of his own. He liked the manhood that the Nation displayed—it appealed to him. He had such respect for Elijah Muhammad that he would never have gone with Malcolm. But Malcolm, all he truly wanted if Ali would not go with him, was to keep up the friendship. It was a very intense time. Every day was history. And you felt it.”
That night, these men decided that they together and separately would chart a path where they would assert their manhood and their cultural strength as a bulwark against racism. They would not be integrationists, they would be symbols of independent strength.
Within one year, two of them—Sam Cooke and Malcolm X—would be shot dead.
Their removal from this equation undoubtedly left a mark on the two men left behind. Jim Brown who, as he told me, could never really get with the discipline and the taking of orders that were a part of Nation of Islam life, would have without question been able to forge a powerful partnership with Malcolm X. He may have even been able to be the bridge that brought Muhammad and Malcolm back together after their acrimonious split.
It is a vexing political “what if,” only made more vexing by the current call for #BlackLivesMatter and the pressing need to fight for justice that should have been attained decades ago.
Dave Zirin is the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show Edge of Sports Radio and the sports editor for The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.
From the April issue of the magazine.