‘Cassius X’ captures the spiritual awakening of Muhammad Ali

“The Greatest” is most known for his stunning knockouts and his braggadocio – but a new biography focuses on his conversion to Islam.

Chicago Review Press
“Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali” by Stuart Cosgrove, Lawrence Hill Books, 2020, 248 pp.

Muhammad Ali will forever be an icon of the boxing world, but what is less known is his conversion to Islam. The dramatic evolution of his beliefs and the symbolic shifting of his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. to Cassius X is the focus of Stuart Cosgrove's penetrating “Cassius X: The Transformation of Muhammad Ali.”

The story begins and ends in Miami; in 1963, Olympic medalist Clay had spent two years training in the city with his sights set on becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. In short order, he achieved this goal by knocking out his most fearsome opponent, Sonny Liston, during their February 1964 match in South Beach.

That victory is still one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Liston was widely thought to be the favorite, and Clay had spent the years since winning gold in 1960 developing a reputation for his braggadocio, famously boasting, “I am the greatest.” Many viewers were betting that Clay’s bark was worse than his bite. 

As Cosgrove’s book suggests, Clay’s famous swagger may not have been the truest representation of his personality, but rather a persona crafted with a staggering amount of media savvy. Carefully curated matches in which the newcomer was sure to triumph and a close relationship with the press helped to boost his rising star. Clay provided the zippy one-liners, and the newspapers kept publishing what turned out to be media gold.

Beyond his boxing skill and his reputation as “The Louisville Lip,” he also had a deep understanding of the power of photography, setting up photo ops like his 1961 shoot with Life magazine. Clay claimed that he trained underwater to keep himself in shape. He didn’t – in fact, he couldn’t even swim. The impressive underwater photo shoot fooled the press and resulted in a gallery of indelible images.

While Clay was publicly working toward becoming heavyweight champion and a bonafide celebrity, he was also having a private transformation of his religious beliefs after being introduced to the Nation of Islam. He was briefly mentored by Malcolm X, a spokesman for the organization at the time. It was during this period before his full conversion that Cassius privately shed his surname, or slave name, to mark that “Clay” belonged to the family that once enslaved his ancestors. He used his new name, Cassius X, only within his inner circle; his team was concerned that public opinion regarding his religion would affect ticket sales.

Cosgrove presents this window of time – from roughly 1961 through 1964 – as Cassius Clay first became Cassius X and then eventually Muhammad Ali, and skillfully provides all the context required to give the reader the fullest understanding of the cultural moment both inside and outside of the boxing ring. These were big years in America, during which ongoing racial tensions flared and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The addition of these historical details is appropriate given Clay’s later tendency to be outspoken on social and political issues, and serves to illustrate that the phenomenon of sports stars getting political is hardly new.

In the preface, the author acknowledges that this book could be considered a prequel to his trilogy on soul music (including “Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul,” “Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul,” and “Harlem 69: The Future of Soul”). Indeed, interspersed throughout "Cassius X" are lengthy discussions about soul music and notable artists of the period. In contrast to the contextual information provided elsewhere in the text, these sections prove to be more distracting than enriching; the links between soul music and the famous boxer don’t prove to be solid enough to make a harmonious blend.

Everywhere else in the text, Cosgove’s approach is solid and illuminating. His command of the subject matter is evident and his storytelling skill is on full display as he chronicles the remarkable transformation of Cassius Clay into Muhummad Ali.

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