The boxing world was still recovering from having a boastful 22-year-old as its world heavy champion when Cassius Clay delivered another shocking announcement: That he was joining the Nation of Islam.
Clay’s interest in the Nation of Islam dated back to 1959 when he had heard a newspaper man shouting “Muhammad speaks, listen to him!” The Nation of Islam was considered a hate organisation by many critics owning to the separatist views that they held, considering Black Muslim Americans different from all others. Many of their practices were labelled as regressive by critics, but Clay saw a different light. He saw the power the group held and more importantly the ability of all of its members to stand up for each other, the Unity.
Ali was first introduced to the group in 1962 and met Malcolm X who was the chief disciple of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam at that time. Clay would secretly attend rallies of the group, the news of his joining almost slipped out of before his match with Sonny Liston. Members of NOI were quite often part of Clay’s entourage to the fight. The news had to be denied to avoid the fight being cancelled, but after his victory Clay came out in the open.
Clay briefly called himself Cassius X before officially changing his name to Muhammad Ali (Praised One) in 1964. He later proclaimed that Cassius Clay was a slave name as he had not selected the name, he insisted that Muhammad Ali was a name he himself had chosen reflecting his freedom. He asked one and all to call him by his new name.
Malcolm X had a huge influence on Ali’s career. He made him embrace the hatred and made him a symbol of the rights of the Blacks. Malcolm broke away from the NOI in 1965 as he had different views on freedom, he believed all to be equal and promoted unity among all men something which was not in compliance with the radical separatist views of the NOI. This ended Ali’s friendship with Malcolm. Clay in his later years confessed that this was one of his biggest regrets in life, of not understanding that Malcolm had chosen the right path.
Ali’s ability to speak up for his own rights, of his choice to stand for what he believed was right and his insistence on treatment of Blacks as equal to Whites changed the definition of what great athlete stood for. It was no longer enough for an athlete to merely be at the top of his game, the new requirement was to stand up for what you believed was right and for your nation.
Ali later converted to Sunni Islam in 1975 and then Sufism in 2005. His hand and influence in promoting the real pillars of Islam which are peace and unity among all is perhaps second to none in the world of sports.