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See the extensive bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay.

The History in Michael Mann's Ali

[1] To fully understand Michael Mann's Ali, one must study not only the transformation of Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali but also the history of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad's leadership and the history of Malcolm X's involvement with the Nation of Islam. All of these struggles are dealt with -- or alluded to -- in Mann's film.

[2] On January 17, 1942, Cassius Macellus Clay, Jr. was born to Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. -- a billboard and sign artist -- and Odessa Grady Clay -- a hired housemaid. Cassius Clay, Jr. was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, with his younger brother Rudolph Clay and attended services weekly at a local Baptist church. At age twelve, Clay had his bicycle stolen and vowed to find and punish the unknown thief. The Louisville police officer who filed the report, Joe Martin, decided to teach Clay the sport of boxing.

[3] Clay worked through the amateur ranks while in high school and won 100 of 108 fights. He went on to represent the United States in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and earned a gold medal in the 175-pound class. After this, Clay began his professional career and earned his reputation as a colorful and vocal "trash talker" rather than a skilled boxer. Yet, on February 25, 1964, 22-year-old Clay fought a heavily favored Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. In round six, Liston refused to come out of his corner, and Clay succeeded in stunning the world by becoming champion.

[4] After the fight Clay announced his acceptance of the Nation of Islam's teachings. He announced to the press on February 27, 1964, that his new name would be Cassius X. A week later he was given the name Muhammad Ali by Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. Ali went on to win nine straight heavyweight fights in defense of his title.

[5] In spring of 1967 Ali was drafted into the United States Army. On April 28, 1967, Ali officially refused to serve in the Army and Vietnam, and on June 20, 1967, he was convicted of induction resistance. Ali was rejected by a large portion of the American population for the decision, and he was also officially punished. Both his Olympic medal and heavyweight championship were stripped from him, and the Boxing Commission banned him from fighting in all states affiliated with it. Ali went through a few years of relative trouble caused and/or intensified by failed attempts at obtaining fight licenses, court and lawyer costs, and disciplining by the Nation of Islam.

[6] Ali emerged victorious on June 28, 1971, when the Supreme Court reversed his draft evasion conviction. In the next few years, all of which are omitted from Mann's film, Ali challenged Joe Frazier and lost in fifteen rounds, won ten straight fights, and lost to Ken Norton. Meanwhile, in the boxing world, George Foreman succeeded in knocking out Joe Frazier for the heavyweight boxing title. Although Joe Frazier no longer held the title, Ali decided to challenge Frazier for a second time, and Ali came out a winner. Ali's next goal was to regain the title.

[7] After these eventful years, Ali challenged George Foreman for the heavyweight championship. The fight was deemed "The Rumble in the Jungle," and flamboyant Don King was in charge of promoting the Kinshasa, Zaire, affair. Mann's film ends with this infamous fight on October 30, 1974, in which Ali upset the champion Foreman using a strategy of leaning on the ropes.

[8] In June of 1979 Ali announced his retirement from professional boxing. Ali starred in a film but could not stay away from the sporting world. He returned to the ring and out of retirement on October 2, 1980, against Larry Holmes. Ali was pummeled in eleven rounds. Nearly a year later, Ali fought Trevor Berbick and lost in ten rounds. In 1981, Ali retired again. He ended his career with 56 wins, 5 losses, and 37 knockouts. Today, Ali suffers from symptoms of Parkinson syndrome but has also become a sort of beloved worldwide ambassador in his later years. For example, in 1996 Ali was honored in Atlanta by running with the Olympic torch. Ali sends letters to world leaders and goes on tours. Over the years, Ali has evolved from the more militant Black Muslim movement into more of a traditional "five pillars" form of Islam. However, at one time, Ali and Malcolm X were leading members of a very visible, powerful, and controversial form of Islam: the 1960s Black Muslim movement.

[9] The 1960s Black Muslim movement has roots dating back to the late 1920s. In 1930 The Nation of Islam or Black Muslim Movement was officially founded in Detroit by Wali Farad Muhammad as a reaction to the oppression of black people in America. The teachings at the time were focused on race relations rather than traditional "five pillars" of Islam practices. By 1934, when Muhammad mysteriously disappears, the religion had converted approximately 8,000 in Detroit.

[10] Elijah Muhammad, Farad's apprentice, who had opened a temple in Chicago, then takes over the Nation and begins to convert Farad's theory into practice. In 1952, Malcolm X begins to teach at a temple in Boston and soon becomes a national spokesperson for the movement. During the late 1950s and early 1960s the Nation of Islam amasses unprecedented power, membership, and resources.

[11] In 1963 the nationally visible Malcolm X becomes disturbed with the leadership of the Nation, claiming that Elijah Muhammad was not practicing his teachings and had fathered children outside of wedlock. By merely recognizing the other racial equality movement of the 1960s (the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.), Malcolm X also began to upset leading Black Muslims. On December 3, 1963, Malcolm X is silenced by the Nation of Islam, and in 1964 he was suspended.

[12] While Malcolm X is being silenced and punished by the Nation of Islam, a young Muhammad Ali is becoming very interested in the group. In 1963, Ali begins to attend meetings, and begins to adopt the religion during his training for the first Sonny Liston fight. Ali claimed to have gained a sort of inner "peace" during his conversion to Islam.

[13] Malcolm X played a role in Muhammad Ali's conversion, but the ensuing relationship between Ali and Malcolm X is hazy and unclear. It is well documented that Ali frequented Malcolm X's home during his conversion. It is also clear that Malcolm X turned to Ali when the former was accused and suspended by the Nation of Islam. If nothing else, Malcolm X, as the key speaker in the Nation of Islam, served as a sort of celebrity in the Nation of Islam. Black Muslim athletes and other prominent Black Muslims flocked to Malcolm X. This seemed to change when Malcolm X was punished by Elijah Muhammad.

[14] After his suspension, Malcolm X goes to Mecca and moves towards a more Orthodox --"five pillars"-- form of Islam. In the fight between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam's key leaders, Ali sides with the latter; he verbally admonishes Malcolm X for not following Elijah Muhammad. In 1965 Malcolm X is officially denounced by the Nation of Islam in their newspaper, and on February 21, 1965, in New York, Malcolm X is assassinated while giving a speech. The killing came after a series of death threats and attempts, and three followers of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the killing. The overwhelming evidence points to the assassination as an attempt by the Nation of Islam to silence Malcolm X. There are also theories of United States intelligence involvement cooperation in the killing. This denouncement and killing of Malcolm X makes up the background in Michael Mann's Ali. Also, Malcolm X's rejection mildly foreshadows Muhammad Ali's brief suspension from the group. Today, the Nation of Islam remains a powerful and influential group in both African American and political circles.

Print Resources

Ali, Muhammad, and Karl Evanzz. I Am the Greatest: The Best Quotations from Muhammad Ali. Kansas City: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2002.
This collection of quotes is important because Mann uses many of the quotes in the film.  The historical accuracy of the quotes can be checked with this source.  The book often exposes what provoked the given quote and/or the circumstances behind the remark.
Anderson, Dave. "Ali Regains Title, Flooring Foreman: Ali Knocks Out Foreman in 8th and Regains World Crown; Winner is Second to Recapture Heavyweight Title; Ali's Robe Forgotten." New York Times 30 October 1974: 1.
No other article describes as well the scene and impact on history of the "Rumble in the Jungle."  Anderson describes the unlikelihood of Ali's victory, its effect on the sport, and the technique involved in his victory.
Anderson, Dave. "Chant of the Holy War: 'ali, Bomaye." New York Times 28 October 1974: 43.
During the days preceding the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, the Zaire natives chanted "Ali, bomaye" (Ali, kill him).  This article sets the chant up as a manifestation of a Holy War between the fighters.  The chant also establishes Ali as the Zairian favorite to win the fight.
"Cassius Clay Loses Status As a Muslim for a Period of Year." New York Times 6 April 1969: 44.
The Nation of Islam disciplines Muhammad Ali for supposedly putting sport above religious commitment to Allah. The suspension was released in the Nation's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks.
Curtis, Edward, IV. Islam in Black America. Albany: State U of New York P, 2002.
Curtis's book offers an overview of the Nation of Islam by looking at key issues or leaders.  There is a lifelong history of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad that directly relates to Mann's film.  The book is largely concerned with how the Black Muslim movement has affected black psychology in America.  This book serves as both a great background source and a book of deep analysis of militant black culture.
Haley, Alex, and Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley.) New York: Ballantine Books, 1964.
Malcolm X dictated his entire life story to Alex Haley for this work.  Only about half of the autobiography is directly related to the 1960s Black Muslim movement, but the material describing this period is first-hand and explicit.  It also tells the story of the Black Muslims from Malcolm X's limited, but very trustworthy, perspective.  Also, the book captures the enthusiasm, anger, and charisma of Malcolm X.
Kihss, Peter. "Malcolm X Shot to Death at Rally Here: Three Other Negroes Wounded -- One is Held in Killing." New York Times 22 February 1965: 1.
While describing the known details behind Malcolm X's assassination, the article suggests a certain mystery behind the killing.  The article also captures the confusion/mayhem surrounding the killing.
Mailer, Norman. The Fight. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.
Mailer journals the "Rumble in the Jungle" and the events surrounding the contest. He captures the contrast between the aging Ali and the emerging Foreman. He also discusses the sport of boxing in the book. The tone of the book is observational, and in many ways it is a written version of the video When We Were Kings.
Plimpton, George. "Muhammad Ali: Floating, stinging, punching, prophesying, he transformed his sport and became the world's most adored athlete." Time 14 June 1999.
"It was a kind of epiphany that those who watched realized how much they missed him and how much he had contributed to the world of sport. Students of boxing will pour over the trio of Ali-Frazier fights, which rank among the greatest in fistic history, as one might read three acts of a great drama. They would remember the shenanigans, the Ali Shuffle, the Rope-a-Dope, the fact that Ali had brought beauty and grace to the most uncompromising of sports. And they would marvel that through the wonderful excesses of skill and character, he had become the most famous athlete, indeed, the best-known personage in the world."
Remnick, David. King of the World. New York: Random House, 1998.
This book analyzes the life of Muhammad Ali by looking at key moments and events in his life.  Many of these events are alluded to in Mann's film.  The book largely deals with pre-champion Ali, but it does talk about Ali after his fame.  It is a very interesting close reading of Ali's life, both inside and outside the ring.
Rosenbaum, David. "Ali Wins in Draft Case Appeal: Calling Up of Boxer Ruled Improper, Court Upholds Him on Religion, 8-0 Supreme Court Clears Ali, 8-0." New York Times 29 June 1971: 1.
This article goes into detail about the Supreme Court's decision to clear Ali.  It is a article that shows the shock at the result of the case.  It is an important moment in American history.
Sammons, Jeffrey T. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1990.
This article does a few things well.  First, it explains the Nation of Islam as a movement.  Second, it describes some of the power-rifts in the movement.  It also shows the media reaction toward the Black Muslims.

See Also

Anderson, Dave. "Foreman 3-1 Over Ali in Zaire Tonight: Foreman 3-1 to Beat Ali in Africa Tonight." New York Times 29 October 1974: 45.

Handler, M.S. "Malcolm X Splits With Muhammad: Suspended Muslim Leader Plans Black Nationalist Political Movement." New York Times 9 March 1964: 1.

Lipsyte, Robert. "Cassius Clay, Cassius X, Muhammad Ali: Cassius Clay." New York Times 25 October 1965: SM29.

Lipsyte, Robert. "Clay: A Ring Mystery: His Mockery of Sport, and Black Muslim Role Make Future of Boxing Uncertain." New York Times 28 November 1965: S10.

Lipsyte, Robert. "Muhammad Ali Slaps at Terrell After Name-calling Exchange at Garden: Champion Labels Foe 'uncle Tom'; References to Cassius by Challenger Appear to Anger Heavyweight King." New York Times 29 December 1966: 38.

Marsh, Clifton. The Lost-Found Nation of Islam in America. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Sammons, Jeffrey. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.

Smith, Charles R. Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali. Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2007.

Waldron, Martin. "Clay Guilty in Draft Case: Gets Five Years in Prison: U.S. Judge Also Fines the Boxer $10,000 for Refusing Induction Clay is Convicted on Draft Charge." New York Times 21 June 1967: 1.

Wicker, Tom. "In the Nation: Muhammad Ali and Dissent." New York Times 2 May 1967: 40.

Video/Audio Resources

I Shook Up the World -- Clay vs. Sonny Liston 1964. Videocassette. Home Box Office Films, 2002.
The fight in this video is Ali's first major title fight. It is the first fight depicted in the Mann film.
Malcolm X. Dvd. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett. Warner Studios, 1992.
This is the big-budget version of the Malcolm X story.  It chronicles the politically important moments of Malcolm X's life as well as the personally important events.  It is a "first-stop" for any type of research on Malcolm X's history and character. 
Muhammad Ali -- The Whole Story. Videocassette. Turner Home Video, 1997.
This box set is important because it contains most of Ali's fights -- about three hours of fight footage -- and it shows the years that Mann omitted in his film.  It also talks about his life outside of the ring.  Basically, this is a complete documentary of Ali.
Rumble in the Jungle -- Ali vs. Foreman 1974. Videocassette. Home Box Office Films, 2002.
This video is the actual video of  "The Rumble in the Jungle."  Mann spends about thirty minutes of Ali on this epic fight, and it is important to look at the actual event for similarities and differences.
When We Were Kings. Dir. Leon Gast. Perf. Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Dvd. Usa Films, 1999.
The film deals with the six weeks leading up to the Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Zaire.  It also shows the spectacle behind the event: he musical artists, dancers, and media representation of the two boxers.
Will Smith and Muhammad Ali
Smith and Ali ask that not all Muslims be blamed for 9/11.

Online Resources
Created with Ali's input, this website is very biographical.  It has personal greetings from Ali, latest news on Ali, fight statistics, and a list of frequently asked questions (and their answers) about the boxer.
The Cyber Boxing Zone
This webpage is a complete and extremely accurate historyof not only of Muhammad Ali's boxing career, but it is also a great source for information and dates on his personal struggles and triumphs. The dating is exact, and all the fight results display the round and method of victory or defeat. Also, the page offers the locations of each individual fight.
International Boxing Hall of Fame "Enshrinees: Muhammad Ali."
This is the most complete and accurate description of Ali's fighting career from beginning to end.  This page deals entirely with his boxing career and discusses a few of his techniques in the ring.  It also describes the "Rumble in the Jungle."
Malcolm X: A Research Site
This site is a starting point for information about Malcolm X.  The site divides the events in Malcolm X's life by year, and it is possible to look specifically at the years portrayed in Michael Mann's film.  It also offers a lot of information on Malcolm X's past (both his childhood and his days as a "criminal").  There are pictures and audio files of his major speeches.
Stanford University Thinker on the Web: "The Nation of Islam"
This is a database on the Nation of Islam in America.  There is a specific, detailed article on the background history of the organization.  The article largely deals with the nation of Islam during the 1930s until the early 1970s.  Article is in timeline format.