For a man whose achievements and influence have spawned him into a walking demigod amongst humans, something Muhammad Ali failed to accomplish has haunted him for nearly 50 years. He never told Malcolm X he was sorry.
Of course, none of this ranks as groundbreaking information. Ali spoke his peace in the autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. Nevertheless, the relationship between two of the 20th century’s most iconic names and personalities remains nothing short of magnetic and profound. Their falling out was an emotional one. X’s voyage to Mecca was an eye-opening experience that – through so many degrees of separation – can be tied to his own demise in February 1965. His denouncing of Elijah Muhammad left Ali in an awkward place.
X and Ali were one in the same. Both were young, handsome, intelligent, outspoken African American men who scared the shit out of the White America during a time period when racial tension was the norm. However, following Ali’s legendary victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964, a brief open season of sorts took place. In somewhat the same manner sports teams openly woo franchise-altering caliber free agents in today’s world, the Nation of Islam desperately yearned for Ali as their poster child, headlined by Elijah’s very public courting. And Ali obliged, announcing his allegiance with the Nation of Islam under the name Cassius X.
Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, witnessed the overnight change of heart in the Nation firsthand. Prior to the Liston fight, the N.O.I. denounced the “filthy” sport of boxing to whomever listened. Afterwards, she said, “All of a sudden, they were breaking their necks, trying to get close to the heavyweight champion.”
Branding is everything. Perhaps Ali was blinded by the attractiveness the Nation’s affiliation would bring. Ali was a wide-eyed 22-years-old champion with the world in the palm of his lighting quick and accurate hands. Even with the bond he shared with Malcolm, there was a certain sense of loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. It was him, of course, who bestowed upon him the name of Muhammad Ali on March 6, 1964, on a Chicago radio broadcast.
As Ali toured parts of Africa, the two titans in sports and civil rights crossed paths in Ghana. Malcolm’s traditional Muslim attire – white robes which all but screamed “to hell with Elijah Muhammad’s teachings,” a beard and prophet’s stick – was the straw that broke the camel’s back. X’s thought process had changed completely. Malcolm attempted to greet Ali, but Ali turned away, disgusted in what he felt at the time was an unforgivable decision. From there, the bond was broken. For the rest of their natural born lives.
Ali’s legend in the ring was continuing to take shape. Meanwhile, X marched forward on what he believed was his mandated path of righteousness following his return from Mecca. I’m not one to claim to know what either was thinking throughout the year of 1964, some 22 years before my own birth. But one thing I’m positive of is despite the smiles and speeches, Ali thought about X and X about Ali.
Both had fought so much alongside each other, while becoming the faces of their respective professions, for a cause neither were sure would be seen in their own lifetimes. They thought about one another. Both probably wanted to make things right. Pride, especially a man’s pride, is a helluva drug, however; the knife man has willingly stuck in his own back since the beginning of time.
The story has a familiar ending. X was assassinated nearly a year to the day on what would’ve been the one year anniversary of Ali’s victory over Liston. In the champ’s own words*:
Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary ahead of us all.
…I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.
A telling song some 17 summers ago preached in order to obtain the most out of life, learning to live with regrets is its most vital lesson. Another said best friends often become strangers when egos begin to replace selflessness and love. Whether or not Ali is familiar with “Regrets” or “The Message,” is irrelevant. He’s heard them without clicking play. He’s lived them.
And arguably the greatest athlete of all time has dealt with said lessons everyday of his life since February 21, 1965. Don’t go to sleep knowing (most) former friendships aren’t required to be “former” forever. Because soon enough, the main tools needed to make amends will no longer be on the shelf. Yourselves.
Learn from The Champ.
Photo: Getty Images
* – Not that it has much to do with this, but take away the religion aspect and add territorial disagreements, it’s sort of the same way Vlade Divac reflects on his falling out with Dražen Petrovic.