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What If ... Muhammad Ali had never met Malcolm X?

by Richard O'Brien

"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." — Muhammad Ali

He almost certainly would have, of course. The man who wrote those words—published in a 2004 autobiography when he was past 60 and long established as a world-wide icon of religious integrity and good will—was already searching for an alternative spiritual path when he was just a young man. Raised in the still-segregated South, taught by his father to fear and distrust white people but imbued with a natural curiosity about the world (coupled with a blithe sense of his own outsized place in it), Cassius Clay attended his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1960. He was soon a member of the relatively new organization, a controversial offshoot of established Islam. (This was kept quiet, to protect his blossoming boxing career.)

It was Malcolm, though, who gave the young fighter a grounding in the true faith, and a sense of where it could lead him, after the two met in ’62. Like his mentor, Ali would in time leave the Nation, converting to Sunni Islam in ’75, and later to the more mystical Sufi branch. Though he would later break with Malcolm under pressure from the Nation of Islam, Ali would remain forever influenced by the relationship. As Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith wrote in their 2016 book, Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, “Under Malcolm’s tutelage, [Ali] embraced the world stage, emerging as an international symbol of black pride and black independence. Without Malcolm, Ali would have never become the ‘king of the world.’”

Maybe a prince, at least. With his ebullience and easy empathy, Ali would still have connected with people all over the world. But without the early influence of as profound a figure as Malcolm X, that young fighter from Louisville might have taken far longer to come into his own. Had they never met, things might have played out very differently for Ali, both in and out of the ring. One can easily imagine an alternative arc to the life of one of America’s most galvanizing figures:

Scottsdale, Ariz., Jan. 17, 2042—Muhammad Ali, the loquacious onetime heavyweight boxing champ known as the Louisville Lip, who went on to a marginal career in Hollywood before becoming a genial pitchman and ubiquitous talk-show guest, and who later served six presidents as an international goodwill ambassador, died today at his home in Scottsdale. He was 100.

Born in Louisville as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., he captured the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. He turned pro and in ’64 won the heavyweight title in an upset over Sonny Liston. A brief involvement with the Nation of Islam led to his name change but ended when the new champ proclaimed himself “confused” by the organization’s more extreme and fantastic teachings. “I ain’t got nothin’ for them Black Muslims,” he famously said.

Ali successfully—and uncontroversially—defended his title nine times before being inducted into the U.S. Army in 1967. During his two years of service Ali, like his predecessor Joe Louis, saw no combat, but stayed in fighting trim as he engaged in a series of exhibitions and toured with Bob Hope and the USO.

Ali returned to the pro ring in 1969 with a hard-fought but clear victory over still-developing contender Joe Frazier. He would make eight more defenses of his title, retiring undefeated in ’73 after an eighth-round KO of ’68 Olympic champ George Foreman (who would claim the vacant title by knocking out Frazier).

While he frequently talked of returning—“I could whoop that chump!” he would say of each ensuing champion—Ali never did, focusing for a while on a show business career that never quite took off (though he made millions in commercials). It was only in his later years, after making his first trip to Africa and discovering the writings of Malcolm X (whose excommunication from the Nation of Islam and assassination predated Ali’s brush with the Black Muslims), that Ali reembraced Islam and took on a role as a roving ambassador for peace and racial reconciliation. It was one that suited him well throughout his active and eloquent golden years.