Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2013. In light of Ali’s passing, we decided to bring it back because it carries with it a message that only he could share with the public. More than an athlete, Ali was a vessel of wisdom whose words were filled with lessons that each of us can take something from.
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.”