In 1962, boxing’s rising heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay) met activist and revolutionary Malcolm X. The meeting would change the lives of both men as they became outspoken figures during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
In a new Netflix documentary called Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali, director Marcus A. Clark explores the close but complicated relationship between the two. It is believed that their falling out ultimately sealed Malcolm’s fate. Why did Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali’s friendship end?
Why did Malcom X and Muhammad Ali’s friendship end?
In 1962, Muhammad Ali traveled to Detroit, Mich., to hear Elijah Muhammad speak at a Nation of Islam (NOI) rally. Before the rally itself, Muhammad was introduced to a young minister of the NOI, Malcolm X. Although Malcolm didn’t know about Muhammad Ali’s rising star in the boxing world, he was nonetheless impressed with the young athlete’s “contagious quality.”
When Muhammad Ali heard Malcolm X speak, he was impressed with Malcolm’s rhetoric concerning white people and the government. "He was fearless. That really attracted me,” Muhammad said.
The two developed a close friendship, with Malcolm becoming a mentor to Muhammad and helping the athlete find his political voice. Johnny Smith, co-author of the book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, on which the Netflix documentary is based, suggests that Muhammad Ali would not have become the man we know had it not been for Malcolm X.
"Malcolm gave him a voice to be more assertive, a voice to be more free with who he wanted to be in front of the public; that he didn't have to hide his true feelings about politics, race, and religion," Johnny says. Malcolm helped Muhammad develop his confidence and charisma outside the boxing ring to become a unifying force for Black nationalism.
Unfortunately, several forces came together to drive a wedge between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X had been falling out with the NOI for a while, and his once extremely close relationship with the Nation’s founder, Elijah Muhammad, had become strained.
By early 1964, Malcolm was suspended from the NOI and stripped of his responsibilities as minister. Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali became boxing's new champion after his historic match with Sonny Liston. He also announced his official name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.
The friendship appeared to be officially over when later, the two ran into each other in Ghana. When Malcolm warmly greeted Muhammad, he only received a cold shoulder. The two fell out so badly that even after Malcolm's assassination in 1965, Muhammad did not offer any public words of affection, nor did he attend his former mentor’s funeral.
Years later, in his memoir Soul of a Butterfly, Muhammad wrote, “Turning my back on Malcolm 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 ... He was a visionary — ahead of us all.”
Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali is streaming on Netflix.