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WHAT IF? ... MUHAMMAD ALI HAD NEVER MET MALCOLM X?

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"MALCOLM Xwas a great thinker and an even greater friend. I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn't been for Malcolm." He almost certainly would have, of course. Eventually. Ali, who wrote those words in a 2004 autobiography, was already searching for an alternative spiritual path when just a young man; then Cassius Clay, he attended his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1960 and was soon a member of the controversial offshoot of established Islam. It was Malcolm, though, who gave the young fighter a grounding in the true faith after the two met in '62. Like his mentor, Ali would in time leave the Nation, and though he would later break with Malcolm, Ali would remain forever influenced by the relationship. As Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith wrote in their 2016 book, Blood Brothers, "Under Malcolm's tutelage, [Ali] embraced the world stage, emerging as an international symbol of black pride and black independence. Without Malcolm, Ali would have never become the 'king of the world.' "

Maybe a prince, at least. With his ebullience and easy empathy, Ali would still have connected with people all over the world. But without the early influence of Malcolm X, one can imagine things playing out very differently for one of America's most galvanizing figures, both in and out of the ring:

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ., JAN. 17, 2042—Muhammad Ali, the loquacious onetime heavyweight boxing champ who went on to a marginal career in Hollywood before becoming a genial pitchman and ubiquitous talk-show guest, and who later served six presidents as a goodwill ambassador, died today at his home in Scottsdale. He was 100. Born in Louisville as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., he captured the light heavyweight gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He turned pro and in '64 won the heavyweight title in an upset over Sonny Liston. A brief involvement with the Nation of Islam led to his name change but ended when the champ proclaimed himself "confused" by the organization's more extreme teachings. "I ain't got nothin' for them Black Muslims," he famously said.

Ali successfully—and uncontroversially—defended his title nine times before being inducted into the U.S. Army in 1967. During his two years of service Ali, like his predecessor Joe Louis, saw no combat but stayed in fighting trim as he toured with Bob Hope and the USO. Ali returned to the pro ring in '69 with a hard-fought but clear victory over still-developing contender Joe Frazier. He would make eight more title defenses, retiring undefeated in '73 after an eighth-round KO of '68 Olympic champ George Foreman.

While he frequently talked of returning—"I could whoop that chump!" he would say of each ensuing champ—Ali never did, focusing for a while on a show business career that never quite took off. It was only in his later years, after making his first trip to Africa and discovering the writings of Malcolm X, that Ali re-embraced Islam and took on a role as a roving ambassador for peace and racial reconciliation. It was one that suited him well throughout his active and eloquent golden years.