True Believer

Malcolm X was in the next room, just a closed door away, when the Champ made up his mind to cut him off. Hours earlier, 22-year-old Cassius Clay "shook up the world," taking the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, a snarling bull of a man. Then he skipped the post-fight party thrown in his honor. Along with just a few close friends, Clay retreated to the Hampton House motel on the rough side of Miami. He played with Malcolm's little girls for a while, then moved to the bedroom with Jim Brown, the legendary NFL running back. It was the greatest night of his young life--Feb. 25, 1964--but Clay was in a somber mood. The feud between his mentor, Malcolm, and his spiritual leader, the Nation of Islam's Elijah Muhammad, was boiling over. Now, as a wealthy, influential Muslim, he would have to make his choice. For two hours, Ali talked. "It was difficult. I know he would've liked things to be different, but they weren't different," Brown says today. "You can't serve two masters." Malcolm X was out.

In the ascension of almost every great figure, decent people get hurt along the way. And surely Muhammad Ali (the name he took after the Liston fight) was one of the great figures of the 20th century. He wasn't just a boxer. He wasn't just a symbol of African-American pride and defiance. He was a religious hero, too: at first despised for his connection to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, Ali became the first Muslim whom America loved. But decent people did get hurt. Ali's brief friendship with Malcolm X is one of his life's most tragic--and, given our current conflict, deeply relevant--chapters. On this score, Michael Mann's new film "Ali," starring Will Smith, is likely to be an eye-opener. The movie spans 10 years, but it begins the day before the Liston fight as Malcolm X (played by Mario Van Peebles) spends his last moments of friendship with Ali. Half an hour later he's gone from the film, murdered by his enemies. But on screen, as in Ali's life, he looms over every moment.

The two men first met in 1962 before a rally at a Detroit mosque. According to David Remnick's excellent biography "King of the World," Malcolm had no idea who Cassius Clay was. The minister hated boxing, considered it a savage minstrel show. But Ali charmed him instantly. Malcolm, meanwhile, gave shape to Ali's pent-up anger over a boyhood spent as a second-class citizen in Louisville, Ky. "It was a big brother-little brother relationship," says Thomas Hauser, who wrote Ali's authorized biography in 1991. "Malcolm was the teacher. He was the spellbinding orator." Soon Malcolm became a regular presence in Ali's training camp, always snapping pictures with his tiny camera. In private, the two would talk for hours about Islam and race. "When I think of Ali in my childhood, I can only grin, smile, get full-bellied with laughter," says Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X's first daughter, the only one old enough to recall Ali in those days. "Watching my father with him, unconditional love was what I saw."

Still, to Ali, Malcolm was just a man. He was not Islam. Though Ali strayed from the Quran at times--the film fixes on his weakness for women--his faith in Allah emboldened him against men and governments. This was Malcolm's lesson, and to the teacher's own detriment, Ali learned it well. By 1964, Malcolm was under suspension from the Nation, ostensibly for saying that President Kennedy's assassination was "the chickens coming home to roost." He was too popular, too independent for the paranoid Elijah. A split was inevitable.

On film, Mann's treatment of Ali and Malcolm's estrangement falls short in one key respect: it fails to convey how petrified Ali was of Elijah Muhammad. Years after Malcolm was killed, while Ali was facing a jail term for refusing to go to Vietnam, the journalist George Plimpton visited Ali in Chicago and the two took a driving tour around town. "I said, 'Take me by Elijah's house'," Plimpton recalls. Ali complied, but as they drew near, he made Plimpton duck down. "We drove by that house at 50 miles an hour. He didn't want to be spotted. I think he understood what they could do. They were intimidating. And because he did fear them, he was malleable." After Ali defeated Liston, Elijah installed his son Herbert as Ali's manager and, on March 6, 1964, honored Clay with a Muslim name. That last move, Remnick notes, was symbolic: Muhammad Ali was now Elijah's charge, not Malcolm's.

Up until then, Ali continued to see his friend--even after that night at the Hampton House. "Ali never shrank from confrontations in the ring, but on a personal level he'd do anything to avoid any sort of ugliness," says Hauser. After the Nation forced his hand, he saw Malcolm just once more: a chance encounter in May 1964 while both were in Ghana. As Malcolm was checking out of his hotel, he spotted Ali checking in and called out to him. Ali froze. "You shouldn't have quarreled with Elijah Muhammad," he said, then walked away. In the film, however, Ali greets Malcolm and, at first, the two chat warmly. Then Ali is gripped by something--anger? fear? duty?--and he cuts Malcolm off. Mann's choice isn't exactly dishonest. It was their last moment together and clearly Ali, who was a consultant on the film, wishes he could have it back. Because nine months later, his good friend Malcolm was gone.