Crawford on Roberts and Smith, 'Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X'

Randy Roberts, Johnny Smith
Scott A.G.M. Crawford

Randy Roberts, Johnny Smith. Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 392 pp. $28.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-07970-4.

Reviewed by Scott A.G.M. Crawford (Eastern Illinois University) Published on H-1960s (October, 2017) Commissioned by Zachary J. Lechner

Brothers in the Struggle

The dust jacket for Blood Brothers perfectly captures the intriguing relationship between two very unlikely soul mates. In the foreground is the incomparable athlete and comedic clown, Muhammad Ali, turning his head with those charismatic and charming raised eyebrows as a cerebral, and unsmiling, Malcolm X lurks over his shoulder and seems to stare into his skull. Ali is in a bow tie. Malcolm X is bespectacled, with a thin, plain tie and a camera clutched in his left hand.

The appeals of Blood Brothers are many. On one level it is a spectacular piece of historical scholarship about two iconic black figures whose once engaging brotherhood became fragile, flawed, and tragic. On another level it is a robust accounting of the impact of black nationalist politics on the landscape of American sports.

It is difficult today to assess the fact that in 1962 Cassius Clay was seen as brash, offensive, and devoid of any redeeming features outside of his in-ring athletic fistic abilities. Malcolm X, however, already established as the ringmaster and public voice in the Nation of Islam, recognized that this young man from Louisville had just the qualities to make him an admirable advertisement for the ideology, and the programs, of the Nation.

As school records reveal, Cassius Clay was, at worst, an academically challenged student and at best, a likable, lanky teenager who had athletic potential. In Malcolm X’s hands, Clay was shaped and reconfigured as a celebrity showman who became a symbol of black independence and pride. Malcolm X was much more than a genius who molded and remade Clay/Ali. He became a guru and best friend.

The extent and depth of this deep friendship was unable to withstand the sudden rift that occurred when Malcolm X’s repeated criticisms of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad--Malcolm X accused Elijah Muhammad of promiscuous behavior--saw him expelled from the Nation of Islam. Ali, according to Roberts and Smith, was appalled by this divide. They write of a conversation: “Glaring, Ali shook his head. 'You left the Honorable Elijah Muhamad,' he said, his voice as cold as his eyes. 'That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.'” The split between Ali and Malcom X was irrevocable: “He [Malcolm X] could see that the boxer was no longer the sweet, affable young man who had once bounced Malcolm’s daughters on his knee. This man, Muhammad Ali, was Elijah’s loyal subject, wearing a new mask, playing the part of the serious, vindictive Black Muslim” (p. 252).

Blood Brothers charts a tumultuous stage of the civil rights movement culminating in Malcolm X’s assassination in February 1965. This magisterial study gives definitive answers to two questions: who was Cassius Clay, and how did he become Muhammad Ali? Roberts and Smith dramatically underscore how the momentum of sports, entertainment, race, and politics tossed together a boxer and a polemical politician. The result was the creation of the most universally recognized global figure of the twentieth century: the “king of the world” (Muhammad Ali).

The notes and bibliography are exemplary. Readers coming across Blood Brothers for the first time should seek out other Randy Roberts offerings. While Blood Brothers is a compelling read, his biographies of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsy, and Joe Louis are the sorts of books that stay on--forever--as the acme of boxing scholarship.

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Citation: Scott A.G.M. Crawford. Review of Roberts, Randy; Smith, Johnny, Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. H-1960s, H-Net Reviews. October, 2017. URL:

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