In April, Muhammad Ali said goodbye to his friend Prince. Almost 30 years before he said goodbye to another music legend, Elvis Presley.
Elvis, Howard Cosell and Malcolm X were three of his most famous and surprising friendships.
Both Elvis and Ali were both born in January on opposite sides of the track in the Jim Crow South. Elvis was raised in a Christian home and went into the military after becoming a star. Cassius Clay converted to the Nation of Islam after rejecting a racist society made up of so-called Christian.
A white policeman told the young Clay to become a boxer, while the intoxicating magic and power of black music captivated young Elvis. Neither Elvis nor Ali denied the influence of other races on their road to fame.
Once after a tour in Hawaii, Elvis presented Ali with a robe that was encrusted with diamonds and rhinestones. Another boxing champion requested a robe from Elvis saying he too was a champion. Elvis told him “no” and said in reference to Ali: “You ain’t that kind of champion.” When others said Elvis was a racist, Ali said Elvis was one of the sweetest and humble men he had ever met.
When Elvis died in 1977 Ali wrote, “People don’t realize what they had till it’s gone. Like President Kennedy, there was no one like him, the Beatles, and my man Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing.”
Cosell and Muhammad Ali both changed the landscape of sports and pop culture. Word masters who battled each other like a street Ninja and a tank, their conversations made you grab a dictionary and hold your sides from laughing so hard. Ali was the first rapper—the Louisville Lip—who burst on the scene in the Rome Olympics. Cosell, a stone-faced eastern intellectual who gave quarter to no one when he was behind the microphone, made Monday Night Football into must see TV.
When Cosell and Ali got together it was lyrical devastation. No two opposites every expressed such comedic and entertaining discords.
The verbal interactions between these two were so entertaining that they made one comedian, Billy Crystal, famous for doing impressions of them.
Ali and Cosell’s careers proved that in America different religious faiths can not only coexist but become legendary. When Ali refused to fight as a Muslim, the Jewish Cosell came to his defense. Cosell reminded all Americans that religious freedom was not just a slogan.
Ali’s willingness to give up all for his principles transformed him from sports star to the face of American conscience.
Malcolm X was a teacher, a big brother figure and guiding light for Ali. He became entangled in a struggle between his spiritual father Elijah Muhammad and his spiritual brother Malcolm X. As a new convert he sided with the father figure.
Malcolm X later left the Nation of Islam and embraced the struggle for human rights and Ali completed his spiritual evolution and just like Malcolm X became an orthodox Muslim, embracing all people.
Malcolm X became the symbol of black pride and manhood, and Ali picked up the torch. They both taught us you could be black and proud, black and pretty and black with stretchered hands to all of God’s children.