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50 Years Ago Tonight: Cassius Clay Beats Sonny Liston, Co-Starring Malcolm X and Sam Cooke | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

50 Years Ago Tonight: Cassius Clay Beats Sonny Liston, Co-Starring Malcolm X and Sam Cooke

Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali

Cassius Clay, now Muhammad Ali (Flickr/pds209)

Today marks one of the most momentous nights in 1960s history. No, not another Beatles performance on Ed Sullivan but young Cassius Clay (already one of my boyhood heroes) whipping aging bad man Sonny Liston to take the heavyweight crown in a huge upset—paving the way for his decades at the forefront of American sports and culture and politics.

Yes, the Beatles visited him earlier in his training camp in Miami Beach for a much-publicized photo op. But the most amazing meeting was the coming together, in a modest hotel in a black neighborhood back in Miami after the fight—starring new heavyweight champ Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown (the greatest football player ever and Sam Cooke (possibly the finest singer of our time). Now that’s a line-up that tops even the Fab Four. Also in attendance: a certain undercover FBI agent.

Clay was about to announce his membership in the “black Muslims” and get a name change. Malcolm was about to get kicked out of that faith, despite (or partly because of) his friendship with Clay, and then make his epic trip to Mecca. Brown was getting more and more outspoken on race. And Sam Cooke was about to record a single with Ali—and write “A Change Gonna Come.” Within a little more than a year, Cooke and Malcolm would be dead.

But on that night, as Peter Guralnick writes:

They sat in Malcolm’s room with Osman Karriem and various Muslim ministers and supporters, eating vanilla ice cream and offering up thanks to Allah for Cassius’ victory, as an undercover FBI informant took note of this apparent nexus between the Nation of Islam and prominent members of the sports and entertainment industries. Sam was uncharacteristically quiet, taking in the magnificent multiplicity of the moment. To him, Cassius was not just a great entertainer but a kindred soul. He had made beating Liston look easy, and Sam was convinced he would beat him again. Because, armed with an analytic intelligence, he had made him afraid.

Jim Brown, an outspoken militant himself, though not a member of the Nation, appeared to veteran black sports reporter Brad Pye Jr. to be more elated over Clay’s achievement than any of his own. “Well, Brown,” said Malcolm with a mixture of seriousness and jocularity, “don’t you think it’s time for this young man to stop spouting off and get serious?”

That is exactly what Cassius did at a pair of press conferences he held in the two days following the fight. He was a Muslim, he said. “There are seven hundred fifty million people all over the world who believe in it, and I’m one of them.” He wasn’t a Christian. How could he be, “when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blowed up… . I’m the heavyweight champion, but right now, there are some neighborhoods I can’t move into….

I’m going to add to this story over the next hour. For now, let me direct you to this lengthy excerpt from Guralnick’s excellent biography of Cooke, which covers that night and the aftermath.

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And here’s a clip from the opening of the Hollywood film Ali, with Will Smith in the starring role and a Sam Cooke character singing in a Miami nightclub that week—which actually happened and was immortalized on one of the great live albums ever, Live at the Harlem Club. Below that, the scene in the ring that night as Ali welcomes Cooke to his celebration. Finally, a clip of Malcolm talking with and about Ali in the aftermath.

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