Cassius X, Stuart Cosgrove Birlinn £17.99
Cassius X is a superb piece of writing documenting a time when Cassius Clay got politicised by Nation of Islam and in particular Malcolm X. This is a fascinating period in history, not just in the boxing ring where the young fighter was preparing to fight Sonny Liston. Life in the US was also changing dramatically. Cassius, a gold-medal winner in the 1960 Olympics, had since turned professional and decided to base himself in Miami. Cosgrove explains how the city shaped him forever. Miami had seen a huge influx of immigration from the island, and Cuban boxers and trainers became part of Clay’s team from the outset. The period also saw the start of a music phenomenon known as soul. Large parts of the book are about this new black music taking the world by storm, and in many ways is a precursor to Cosgrove’s earlier soul trilogy: Detroit 67, Memphis 68 and Harlem 69.
Cassius regularly frequented the soul clubs where future superstars started their careers. He became friends with many, including his first serious girlfriend Dee Dee Sharp — at the time a bigger name than Cassius. It wasn’t just music where black people were changing the world. The civil rights movement was growing and the fight against segregation became one of the biggest issues in the US. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 had a deep impact. Comedy was frowned upon, and the smiling, loud, showoff boxer from Kentucky was criticised in some quarters for not respecting the sombre mood. Another person criticised was Malcolm X.
His relationship with Nation of Islam leaders, particularly Elijah Muhammad, was by this time so strained there seemed no way back. Malcolm sealed the deal with his “chickens have come home to roost” comment in response to the JFK murder. Clay’s victory against Liston is arguably the greatest upset in heavyweight boxing. The FBI spent years investigating if the fight was fixed. No evidence was ever found. Afterwards Clay celebrated in a hotel room with his close friend Sam Cooke and mentor Malcolm X. It wasn’t long before both men were shot dead. Shortly after the fight, Nation of Islam announced Clay was now a member of its organisation and had been given the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. It was a masterstroke by Elijah Muhammad and from that point onwards Ali and Malcolm X never spoke to each other again.
The book isn’t so much about Cassius Clay, who became Cassius X, who became Muhammad Ali, who became the greatest boxer and most famous sports person ever. Rather it uses Ali as a first-hand witness to some remarkable events in 1960s politics and culture. Cassius X tells the story of a part of Ali’s life that has never really been told before. But the real story is the music, the people, the politics and the events which shaped the US.