On the night of February 25, 1964, the 22 year old Cassius Clay defeated the supposedly undefeatable Sonny Liston to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. It was an upset of historic proportions – Liston had been an eight-to-one favourite – and a shock to the sports-writing fraternity, which had written off Clay as a self-publicising loudmouth.
But the result in the ring was to prove only a prelude to a series of greater shocks.
After the fight, Clay retired to his hotel in Miami's black ghetto, where he conferred with friends and advisers, including Malcolm X, the singer, Sam Cooke, and the American football star, Jim Brown. At his press conference the next day, he told the sports writers, ‘I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want.’
These days it's a statement that might grace an advert for running shoes, SUVs or iPads. But in context, it was incendiary.
First of all, back then the sports media did indeed think that young sportsmen, and especially young black sportsmen, should be what they were told to be: humble, deferential, respectful. Clay's insistence on being what he wanted to be was therefore a direct challenge to the authority and status of his elders.
However, what was most shocking was that what Clay wanted to be was a member of the Nation of Islam. ‘I was baptized when I was twelve but I didn't know what I was doing. I'm not a Christian any more. I know where I'm going, and I know the truth.’
The Nation of Islam, dubbed ‘the Black Muslims’ by the media, was at the time one of the most widely hated and feared organisations in the USA, denounced as a black counterpart to the Klan. Already, Clay's association with Malcolm had nearly scuppered the Miami fight. Now, in the wake of his victory, Clay declared his allegiance openly and defiantly. He made it amply clear that it was the racism of American society that had led him to this decision. ‘I ain't no Christian. I can't be when I see all the coloured people fighting for forced integration get blowed up. They get hit by stones and chewed by dogs and they blow up a Negro church and they don't find the killers’ - a reference to white supremacist bombing of a Birmingham church the previous September, in which four black children were killed. ‘I'm the heavyweight champion, but right now there are some neighbourhoods I can't move into.’
Clay's embrace of the Nation was provocative in the extreme. First, he was repudiating Christianity in a predominantly Christian country, in favour of what was seen as an exotic and, at best, suspect religion. Secondly, he was repudiating the integrationist agenda of the civil rights movement at the height of that movement's prestige (six months after the March on Washington), in favour of a militantly separatist politics and practise. And thirdly, he was repudiating American national identity in favour of a Black Nationalist (and internationalist) identity. In the midst of the Cold War, at a time when patriotism was considered de rigeur for anyone in American public life, this was perceived as virtually treasonous.
A week after the press conference, on March 4, Clay accompanied Malcolm X on a visit to the UN in New York, where he met delegates from newly independent African nations. ‘I'm the champion of the whole world,’ he explained, ‘and I want to meet the people I'm champion of.’ Two days later, the former and autocratic ruler of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad, announced that Clay would henceforth be known by his ‘original name’ of Muhammad Ali. This was yet further fuel for a wrathful media. There was nothing new about performers changing their names, but that had usually been done to hide ethnicity and conform to WASP sensibilities; here, the opposite process was at work. It's hard to believe now, but Ali had to fight a long battle to force the world to recognise his new name. Throughout the sixties, the New York Times persisted in calling him Cassius Clay. In this respect, as in many others, Ali kicked open the door for others to follow.
As a result of his association with the Nation of Islam, Ali forfeited most of the commercial opportunities that usually come with the heavyweight title. At the time, it seemed that by alienating so many he had boxed himself into a corner. He became and remained for some time the most hated figure in American sport. But as it turned out, his defiant stance was the first step in building a unique world-wide constituency. In the years to come, his embrace of a new social identity would lead him into confrontation with the US government, as he refused to take part in a war against a people of colour fighting to control their own destiny.
Malcolm spent a great deal of time with Clay both before and after the fight. Almost alone, he had believed from the start that Clay would beat Liston. He was one of the first to perceive the young man's underlying seriousness of purpose. ‘We forget that though a clown never imitates a wise man, the wise man can imitate the clown.’ Clay, he observed, ‘is sensitive, very humble, yet shrewd – with as much untapped mental energy as he has physical power.’ During their talks together, Malcolm fortified Clay's sense of mission, alerting him to the larger potential of his role as a sports star.
Remarkably, during this entire period, Malcolm had been under suspension from the Nation of Islam as a result of his ‘chickens coming home to roost’ response to the Kennedy assassination. He was undergoing a traumatic reassessment of Elijah Muhammad and preparing for his break with the Nation, which he announced on 8 March. How much of this Malcolm shared with Clay is unknown. His priority was supporting Clay, and he may have felt it was best to shield the new convert from the confusing breach inside the Nation. Though Ali remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad, his time with Malcolm proved formative, not least in opening his eyes to the wider world beyond America's shores and in particular the global anti-colonial movement.
I remember vividly that night fifty years ago. At eleven years old, I was very much a sports fan, and had been eagerly following the build-up to the fight. Already I'd been seduced by Cassius Clay. With his cartoon-like mugging, his bravado and impishness, his energy and wild humour, he seemed to leap from the television screen. I was aware that older people in general disapproved of his antics, but I enjoyed them. Nonetheless, when they said he had no chance against Liston, I took their wisdom for granted.
I listened to the fight on a transistor radio in my bedroom. When Liston failed to come out for the seventh round, I was transported. Overwhelmed with excitement, I hopped up and down in my pajamas. With the adrenaline pumping, it was hours before I could get to sleep.
It was my first taste of one of sport's most delicious pleasures: the upset victory of the underdog, and with it, the overturning of hierarchies and the confounding of experts. On that night in Miami, fifty years ago, the sporting upset portended greater upsets in wider fields. It was one of those rare moments when the boundaries of the possible are suddenly transformed and a new horizon becomes visible.
Mike Marqusee is the author of 'Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties'