[The following is loosely adapted from a section of my book A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press).]

Fifty years ago, no one gave 22-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. a chance against the heavyweight champion, Charles “Sonny” Liston. Even Clay’s own corner pre-emptively mapped out the quickest route from the hospital from the arena. Their fear was rooted in reality. Liston had an arrest record that could fill a file cabinet and in previous lives had been employed by the mob as a strike breaker and enforcer. The recently deceased poet Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) called Liston “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world.”

Before Liston’s championship fight when he won the title against Floyd Patterson, President Kennedy took the time to call Patterson and express that it would not be in “the negroes best interest” if Liston won. As one writer noted dryly, “The fight definitely was not in Patterson’s best interest.” Liston destroyed Patterso, setting the stage for his fight against Clay.

The great James Baldwin was sent to cover Liston before the fight. He wrote, in a brilliant essay, “[Liston] is far from stupid; if not, in fact, stupid at all. And while there is a great deal of violence in him, I sensed no cruelty at all. On the contrary, he reminded me of big, black men I have know who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to conceal the fact that they weren’t hard. Anyone who cared to could turn them into taffy.” Baldwin also pointed that Liston had moved seamlessly in the white-sports media from villain to hero, as they were counting on him to shut the mouth of the young Olympic gold medalist they called “the Lousiville Lip” and “Gaseous Cassius.”

Clay had a gift for gab that made a sportswriter’s job easy. He had also been keeping close company with Malcolm X, and rumors flew through the boxing world that Clay was going to join the Nation of Islam. Malcolm, himself, was a fixture at Clay’s Miami training facility and took great joy in tweaking the sportswriters’ assumptions about the fight. While everyone was predicting an easy knockout for Liston, Malcolm said, “Clay will win. He is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known and he will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson. Robinson is an establishment hero. Clay will be our hero…. Not many people know the quality of mind he has in there. One forgets that although the clown never imitates a wise man, a wise man can imitate the clown.” Although the verdict was out on whether he was wise or a clown, no one gave him a chance against Liston. But Ali, quicker, stronger and bolder than anyone knew, shocked the nation and beat Liston. He then famously shouted to the heavens and over a reporter’s questions, “I shook up the world!”

The day after Liston fell, Clay announced publicly that he was a member of the NOI. Words cannot do justice to the firestorm this caused. Whatever disagreements one may have with the Nation of Islam, the fact is that the heavyweight champion of the world was joining the organization of Malcolm X. The Olympic gold medalist had linked arms with a group that called white people “devils” and stood unapologetically for self-defense and racial separation. As Mike Marqusee wrote, “Clay’s embrace of the Nation was provocative in the extreme. First, he was repudiating Christianity in a predominantly Christian country, in favour of what was seen as an exotic and, at best, suspect religion. Secondly, he was repudiating the integrationist agenda of the civil rights movement at the height of that movement’s prestige (six months after the March on Washington), in favour of a militantly separatist politics and practise. And thirdly, he was repudiating American national identity in favour of a Black Nationalist (and internationalist) identity. In the midst of the Cold War, at a time when patriotism was considered de rigeur [sic] for anyone in American public life, this was perceived as virtually treasonous.”

Not surprisingly, the power brokers of the conservative, mobbed-up, corrupt fight world lost their minds. Jimmy Cannon, perhaps the most famous sportswriter in America, wrote, “The fight racket since its rotten beginnings has been the red light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of mass hate…. Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness.”

Ali was attacked not only by Cannon and his ilk but also by the respectable wing of the civil rights movement. “Cassius Clay may as well be an honorary member of the white citizen councils,” said Roy Wilkins. Ali’s response at this point was very defensive. He repeatedly said that his wasn’t a political but purely religious conversion. His defensiveness reflected the perspective of the NOI. Ali said, “I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me. Integration is wrong. White people don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims? I’ve never been in jail. I’ve never been in court. I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign.”

But much like Malcolm X, who at the time was engineering a political break from the Nation, Clay—much to the concern of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad—found it impossible to explain his religious world view without speaking to the mass black freedom struggle exploding outside the boxing ring. He was his own worst enemy—claiming that his was a religious transformation and had nothing to do with politics, but then in the next breath 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.”

If the establishment press was outraged, the new generation of activists was electrified. “I remember when Ali joined the Nation,” recalled civil rights leader Julian Bond. “The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion that he would do it, that he’d jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America and be proud of it, sent a little thrill through you…. He was able to tell white folks for us to go to hell; that I’m going to do it my way.”

At this time, he was known briefly as Cassius X, but Elijah Muhammad gave Clay the name Muhammad Ali—a tremendous honor and a way to ensure that Ali would side with Elijah Muhammad in his split with Malcolm X. But the internal politics of the Nation were not what the powers that be and the media noticed. To them, the Islamic name change—something that had never occurred before in sports—was a sharp slap in the face.

Almost overnight, whether an individual called the champ Ali or Clay indicated where they stood on civil rights, Black Power and eventually the war in Vietnam. The New York Times insisted on calling him Clay as an editorial policy for years thereafter.

This all took place against the backdrop of a black freedom struggle rolling from the South to the North. During the summer of 1964, there were 1,000 arrests of civil rights activists, thirty buildings bombed and thirty-six churches burned by the Ku Klux Klan and their sympathizers. In 1964, the first of the urban uprisings and riots in the northern ghettoes took place. The politics of Black Power was starting to emerge and Muhammad Ali became the critical symbol in this transformation. As news anchor Bryant Gumbel said, “One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that Black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that for many Black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”

A concrete sign of Ali’s early influence was seen in 1965 when Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee volunteers in Lowndes County, Alabama, launched an independent political party. Their new group was the first to use the symbol of a black panther. Their bumper stickers and T-shirts were of a black silhouette of a panther and their slogan was straight from the champ: “WE Are the Greatest.”

Yes, it is certainly true that Cassius Clay was born on January 17, 1942, but Muhammad Ali, in every way, was born fifty years ago in Miami.