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Cassius X by Stuart Cosgrove – Glasgow Walking Tours blog

On September 3rd, Stuart Cosgrove’s brilliant new book, Cassius X is published and it’s already garnered rave reviews. We’re running an excerpt here and over on our FB page there’s a competition to win a copy: thanks to Alison Rae at Polygon and to Stuart for this.

Miami, 1963. A young boy from Louisville, Kentucky, is on the path to becoming the greatest sportsman of all time. Cassius Clay is training in the 5th Street Gym for his heavyweight title clash against the formidable Sonny Liston. He is beginning to embrace the ideas and attitudes of Black Power, and firebrand preacher Malcolm X will soon become his spiritual adviser. Thus Cassius Clay will become ‘Cassius X’ as he awaits his induction into the Nation of Islam.

Cassius also befriends the legendary soul singer Sam Cooke, falls in love with soul singer Dee Dee Sharp and becomes a remarkable witness to the first days of soul music. As with his award-winning soul trilogy, Stuart Cosgrove’s intensive research and sweeping storytelling shines a new light on how black music lit up the sixties against a backdrop of social and political turmoil – and how Cassius Clay made his remarkable transformation into Muhammad Ali.

Cassius X and the Power of Photography

By Stuart Cosgrove

The fame and celebrity that grew up around the young Cassius X was in large part due to his instinctive understanding of the media and what was needed to project his image across America. He spoke incessantly, dressed impeccably and was always available for interview. More than all of that he knew how photography worked.

As he crept up the heavyweight rankings, Life magazine and Sports Illustrated commissioned a freelance photographer called Flip Schulke to photograph Cassius at the 5th Street Gym in Miami where he trained.

Schulke struck up a good relationship with Cassius and took him shopping to Burdines, the department store on Flagler Street, where Cassius tried on shirts, a new jacket and smart shoes. The manager took the photographer aside and despite protestations told him that the store did not allow ‘Negroes’ to try on clothing. Schulke, who had travelled extensively across the Deep South states as a photographer with Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was accustomed to stories of segregation, was taken aback by the Burdine’s policy of discrimination in a major US city. He argued vociferously with the manager, informing him that the boy he was excluding from the store was an Olympic Gold Medallist. Cassius calmed him down and guided him out on to Flagler Street and they finally returned to the African American ghetto, Overtown, where Cassius had set up home, to buy the clothes.

The two men talked excitedly about photography, and Cassius asked what kind of photograph would get him onto the cover of Sports Illustrated. Schulke described a photo-session he had recently completed that had been shot underwater. Without skipping a beat, Cassius told him that he trained every morning under water in the pool at the local Sir John Motel. It was a complete fabrication improvised on the spot but the idea excited Schulke and he rang round his editors to place the photographs. Sports Illustrated declined and asked for more conventional gym shots, but Life responded positively and gave Schulke enough encouragement for him to drive a car loaded with scuba-diving equipment, underwater cameras, and diving weights to the Sir John swimming pool for what turned out to be a landmark moment in boxing history. Cassius, who could not swim and had never trained underwater, took to the pool, punching furious upper cuts up through the water. The photographs, now known as ‘The Arc of Bubbles,’ became classics of sports photography, a spread in Life magazine, and the beginning of Cassius’s realisation that photography was a key to visibility in America’s burgeoning magazine industry. He began to befriend photographers as if they held a special power and, in the years, to come became the most photographed sporting personality ever.

His instinctive ability to self-promote brought journalists, photographers and eventually television crews streaming to the 5th Street Gym, and others periodically trailed him to Overtown, where Cassius interrogated their plans and made his own sometimes preposterous suggestions. The photographs and short clips that have survived from Cassius’s early years are remarkable in both their range and theatricality. Photographer Lee Betterman captured him inside a boxing ring in a bow-tie and tuxedo as if he was ready to attend a black-tie dinner; the Life and Vanity Fair photographer Steve Shapiro captured Cassius shadow-boxing in the family home in Louisville and relaxing on a settee playing monopoly; Marvin Lichtner’s images are more redolent of classic sports photography, capturing close-ups of Cassius sparring in his Everlast head-protection guard; and Bob Sandberg of Look magazine captured fascinating images of Cassius performing magic tricks for local youngsters.

Of all the many perspectives that history has given us of Cassius’s unique life, little is made of his obsession with close-up magic and simple tricks that would delight onlookers. James Drake, a staff photographer at Time/Life, took Cassius to a secluded catholic campus at Nazareth College in his native Louisville to meet one of his greatest fans, Sister Ellen James. She had once hired Cassius as a library cleaner to supplement his lowly income as a trainee boxer. The reunion was a photographer’s dream, the nuns resplendent in traditional black and white robes and Cassius impudent, effervescent and loving the contrivance of the moment. He had known the nun for years and she had been one of the first people he showed his Olympic Gold Medal to.

Some of Cassius’s cleverly cultivated friendships with photographers have stood the test of time. The Fleet Street photographer Harry Benson took The Beatles to the 5th Street Gym in 1964 and invited Cassius to pose with the group, and then participate in a cod-punching trick, flooring all The Beatles in a row.

Few photographs can lay as strong a claim to capturing stardom in the sixties quite so memorably as this one. Then in 1968, there was the photograph that dominated the front page of Esquire Carl Fischer’s bold and provocative image of the Martyrdom of San Sebastian, in which archers riddled the body of the naked Saint with sharpened arrows. Cassius, now Muhammad Ali, stands semi-naked with four bloodstained arrows wounding his chest. No one did more to assist photographers than Cassius.

Understandably, it was African American photographers that got closest to Cassius X. The grandfather of African American photography, Gordon Parks Sr. perfected a portfolio that stretched through rural poverty, civil rights, Harlem jazz, and ultimately Black power. He took the greatest pure portrait of Cassius, drenched in sweat, and stripped of the veneer of play acting that so often followed him through his early life. But the man who got closest was his friend and confidante Howard Bingham who met him when he was a photography student in Los Angeles, and then joined the growing entourage around the young boxer. Feeding off Cassius’s instinctive love of attention and fame, Bingham was encouraged to compose photographs that stood apart from the familiar punch-bag and gym shots. He set up a now remarkable image in which Cassius is training in the 5th Street Gym accompanied by a concert violinist. The Brylcreemed violinist carefully strokes his bow as Cassius skips furiously beside him. Behind them both are the decaying men’s room and boxing posters promoting fights of the era, among them the Cuban champions who trained alongside the garrulous contender. But most telling of all, and those that have been pored over most in the years since, are Bingham’s historically important shots of Cassius in casual conversation with his mentor, the Black Muslim radical Malcolm X.

The young boxer was so convinced of the power of photography and aware of his reputation as a loudmouth, that he carried a roll of white gaffer tape in his pocket to ensure he always had a photo-opportunity at hand. Waiting for the photographer to set up, Cassius would rip the tape into two pieces and shut his own mouth with an X mark. It was a routine rich in meaning, the X that he would inherit on his way to full induction into the Nation of Islam, it hinted at the symbolic white society trying to close down a voluble young black man and it was a zany stunt set up to bring even more attention to the greatest sportsman ever.

Stuart Cosgrove’s Cassius X is published by Polygon on 3rd September

Stuart Cosgrove originally from Perth, was media editor with the NME and a feature writer for a range of newspapers and magazines. In 2005 he was named Broadcaster of the Year in the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards and in 2012 he won numerous awards including a BAFTA and Royal Television Society award for Channel 4’s coverage of the London Paralympics 2012. The second book in his soul trilogy, Memphis 68, won the Penderyn Music Prize in 2018.


Reviews for Cassius X

Cassius X is a delightful ride in a cherry-red Cadillac, with soul music on the radio and a steady hand at the wheel. A thoroughly enjoyable journey’ – JONATHAN EIG, author of Ali: A Life

‘Crisply written, fast-paced, and original, this book surges with the kind of effervescence we have long associated with a young Cassius Clay. Even the most informed Muhammad Ali fan will learn something new from this book, which includes previously unexplored details about the champ’s relationships with singers Sam Cooke and Dee Dee Sharp, his manager Bill Faversham, and boxers Don Warner, Luis Rodríguez, and Jimmy Ellis . . . Filled with colourful details, with a learned eye toward the music of the era, Cassius X hits all the right notes’ – MICHAEL EZRA, author of Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon

‘An exciting trip through the urban worlds of boxing, soul music, and crime, as Cassius Clay joins the Nation of Islam, becomes Muhammad Ali, and ascends the ranks of boxing to become World Heavyweight Champion during the early 1960s’ – LEWIS ERENBERG, author of The Rumble in the Jungle

‘There are many books about Muhammad Ali, but none like Stuart Cosgrove’s Cassius X. Focusing on the athlete’s transformation from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, Cosgrove provides the reader with an extraordinary view of the radical psychological and spiritual changes that Ali experienced during the early part of his career. He does this while expertly weaving in the social upheaval during the Civil Rights era and how those events shaped the boxer’s personal evolution. Too often, biographers of African American public figures focus on their achievements at the expense of how those achievements impacted the personal lives of the individual. Not so with Cassius X. The book is a deeply personal look at one of ‘The Greatest’ public figures of the last one hundred years and is a model of how biographies of African Americans should be written’ – RAY WINBUSH, author of Belinda’s Petition: A Concise History of Reparations for the Transatlantic Slave Trade