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Muhammad Ali and the mafia

How murder and mayhem were linked to the legendary boxer.

Muhammad Ali (file pic).
Muhammad Ali (file pic).
Image: DPA/PA Images

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘My Brother, Muhammad Ali: The Definitive Biography of the Greatest of All Time’. 

One very interesting character who played a part in Muhammad’s life was Major Benjamin Coxson, – the ‘Major’ was his real name, not a military rank – an entrepreneur and power broker with ties to the Nation of Islam.

In fact, Muhammad had purchased his Cherry Hill home from Major Coxson. My brother would later say that the ‘Maj’ was the driving force behind his family’s move to the East Coast. Whether this was a joke is debatable.

The two first met in 1968, when my brother was still in exile, at an event in Philadelphia, and later proceeded to join forces in an effort to get Muhammad back into the ring.

Major Coxson’s job, apparently, was to get the Muhammad Ali PR show back on the road, getting him back into the limelight after his exile came to an end. To be quite honest, I’m not sure just how much he could do to propel my brother further into the public eye because Muhammad didn’t need anyone to accelerate his PR. He was his own PR machine and everyone knew it. I often saw people boasting that they were one of my brother’s managers, representatives or close associates, just to jump on the bandwagon.

However, what was interesting about his flamboyant friend was that he was a long-time fixture in the East Coast underworld. Coxson had an impressive criminal CV. He was an automobile thief, fraudster and reputed drug dealer, but also a very confident and knowledgeable black man who attracted attention from all sorts of quarters.

In collaboration with the Muslims at Temple 12 – the Nation of Islam mosque in Philadelphia my brother and I attended – he had a hand in setting up fake businesses as a front for money laundering. Moreover, this man was an aspiring politician who pursued politics and was running for mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Muhammad, meanwhile, had cultivated a great relationship with this criminal and they both became business partners when he moved to the East Coast.

Despite being aware of Coxson’s background, Muhammad didn’t shy away from endorsing his friend in public. There were plenty of local newspaper stories about the pair of them, which predictably confused people because those in the Philadelphia and New Jersey area knew that Muhammad’s new friend was a career criminal who had served time in federal prison.

The local populace knew this man was consorting with murderers and drug runners, yet, here you had Muhammad embracing him and supporting him openly. Honestly, it was very frustrating for many of Muhammad’s supporters, and plenty of people in the New Jersey area were disconcerted with my brother because he was giving credibility and legitimacy to a known hustler.

Why did he do it? Let’s put it this way: sure, Muhammad knew of his friend’s under-the-table dealings, just like he knew who most of the Black Mafia members were. Like I said, my brother and I were frequent visitors to Temple 12. He knew that entire scene well.

It didn’t take the police department or law enforcement authorities to warn Muhammad whom he was dealing with. Although Muhammad’s friend was affiliated with the Black Mafia, and dabbled in drugs and other illegal and dubious activities, my brother was in no way involved in those activities. Both men had forged a friendship in spite of their differences in outlook. I’d say Muhammad viewed Major Coxson mostly as a friend but also, at one point, called him as a financial manager. In the end, their relationship was a little of both – personal and professional.

Another man Muhammad was really close to was Jeremiah Shabazz, the man who headed up Temple 12. He was one of the most influential individuals in the Nation of Islam, a man who owned bakeries and food stores throughout the area around the temple.

Several other members of Temple 12 Black Mafia were also heavily invested in narcotics, and it would later emerge that the FBI and police were keeping a close eye on their activities. Did my brother know about any of this? He certainly was aware of the drinking and drug use that some of these men, Coxson included, indulged in, and that it went against the tenets of Elijah Muhammad. But he certainly didn’t take part himself. We both mingled with this fraternity, but would never be influenced by them.

It’s also true to say that if you look at a lot of stars in showbiz back then, many of them – from the white community especially – were hanging out with hustlers. They loved the buzz of being in that world.

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Italian mobsters were constantly hanging out with high-profile celebrities, whether from Hollywood or TV or the world of sports. For his part, Muhammad found these people intriguing individuals. He loved the air of mystery they projected.

Coxson had multiple bars and nightclubs. Those nightclubs were unique because this was one of the most racially divided cities in the United States. And yet, Major Coxson was so popular you’d see blacks mingling with whites, you’d see local sports stars, celebrities, it was an amazing thing he was able to pull off.

Someone like Muhammad could have gone into any nightclub and it wouldn’t have raised eyebrows; that was something Major Coxson was able to do with his power and influence. Everybody, I remember, would cause a commotion when the Black Mafia members or Major Coxson would walk into a bar. Muhammad, whatever else he thought of Coxson, could respect that kind of eye towards publicity, that ability to work a crowd and people’s perceptions.

I don’t think Major Coxson, for instance, ever completely divulged to anyone what he was getting up to. At one point, it was rumoured that Muhammad’s friend owned a fleet of Rolls-Royce cars, and it was only after he died they realised these were just regular American cars, but he had replaced the Chrysler emblems on the cars with Rolls-Royce symbols.

To further complicate matters, Muhammad also decided to back Coxson in his quest to conquer politics when he ran for mayor of New Jersey. Of course, Muhammad understood that, with Coxson being black, it wasn’t going to be plain sailing, but nevertheless, Muhammad and other prominent black faces from the area lent their support, perhaps figuring that any black face would be an improvement over the staid white men traditionally filling the role.

Coxson, meanwhile, bought himself a residence in Camden district as a campaign office, painted the front white and called it the White House. Then he proclaimed that he was going to be the first black man in the real White House. Ironically, he purposely chose a spot next to the FBI building in New Jersey, the headquarters of the very people who were monitoring him. The guy, Muhammad felt, was crazy.

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Eventually, Muhammad learned Coxson’s campaign got in a mess because he owed so many thousands of dollars in back taxes, and even then my brother came to the rescue. The Internal Revenue Service, for instance, confiscated Coxson’s fleet of cars because he couldn’t document any legal income, and as soon as Muhammad heard about it, he wasted no time in giving him his own Rolls-Royce to use for the campaign.

Muhammad was at the forefront of the campaign and soon the local papers jumped on the issue. My brother would take every opportunity to promote his friend. After he beat Jerry Quarry again in their second outing in June 1972, instead of saying anything about the fight he’d just won, his first words were, ‘I want to dedicate this victory to the next mayor of New Jersey, Major Coxson.’

Since there was an inordinate amount of press surrounding Major Coxson pertinent to his criminal background, this became a key area which left Muhammad wide open to criticism. But my brother’s PR and management at the time weren’t like publicists today who control their client’s image and might advise them against being associated with certain people. He was being advised by members of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad’s children and the Black Mafia. It was difficult even for me to get through to him.

My Brother, Muhammad Ali: The Definitive Biography of the Greatest of All Time by Rahaman Ali and Fiaz Rafiq is published by Bonnier Books. More info here.

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