Why Muhammad Ali's greatest fight was outside the boxing ring

Sonia Chopra
Sonia ChopraJun 10, 2016 | 17:09

Why Muhammad Ali's greatest fight was outside the boxing ring

A Muslim funeral for Muhammad Ali drew thousands of well-wishers and fans to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. They came to pay their respects to a man who had won their admiration for his championship status as an athlete and as a political activist.

There were an estimated 14,000 people of all religions and races who attended the funeral for Ali, who died on June 3 of septic shock in Arizona. He was 74.


Ali, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, was renowned and celebrated for his unique and unconventional boxing style which was a combination of flamboyance, speed, agility and power. His self-confidence which was boastful to some but refreshingly honest to many was always a huge crowd-puller.

A Muslim funeral for Muhammad Ali drew thousands of well-wishers to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

A magnetic figure and a charismatic personality who was loud and enjoyed the limelight, Ali was easily among America’s top 50 most recognisable public figures.

While I agree that Ali should be honoured for his contribution to boxing, I urge people to also remember him for his political activism.

He was one of the pioneers of the "black pride" movement. He embraced the controversial Nation of Islam and insisted that he only be addressed as "Muhammed Ali" instead of his "slave name" Cassius Clay.

But his biggest and most famous fight took place outside the ring, and it was with the United States government over his adamant refusal to be in the Army and go to Vietnam in the 1960s. It was almost as if he knew that there would be resentment and anger against that war in the years to come.


At the time, America was pounding Vietnam more forcefully and the country needed the manpower. So it began to lower its standards for the draft and call on those with low IQs.

Ali, whose Army-tested IQ score of 78 had been considered too low for the draft in 1962, was now considered eligible for "unrestricted military service".

Now, it was 1967 and Ali, who was by then an Olympic gold medalist and a heavyweight champion, received the news while he was surrounded by reporters. In what was perhaps, an impulsive, knee-jerk reaction, Ali boldly and boisterously proclaimed that  he won’t go to war.

"Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong," he told a reporter. "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"

For a famous American sports hero to openly defy the government’s stand on the war in those days was shocking.


Public reaction was brutal and he was denounced by other boxers, sports columnists and Congressmen. He quickly became the most hated public figure because at the time, the approval rating for the war was over 50 per cent.

Muhammad Ali in Nigeria.

Then he gave other interviews, in which he clarified his stand further saying that his "conscience" was the reason and it "won’t allow me to go shoot my brother or some darker people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?"

"They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot those poor people? Just take me to jail?"

It was Ali’s most powerful moment and his biggest act of social and political activism and one that cost him dearly.

The government disagreed with his views. They had his arrested and tried in court. An all-white jury convicted him of draft evasion and he was sentenced to five years in prison with a $10,000 fine. His boxing title was revoked and he was banned from the boxing ring for three years.

He spent four years in court instead of the ring, spent millions of dollars on his defence, went into debt and lost the best fighting years of his life. His boxing career was over.

To be fair to the government, he was given many opportunities to recant, apologise and join the Army. He was also asked to perform for the troops.

However, he stayed defiant.

"I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years."

Even his allies and his closest supporters deserted him. The Nation of Islam disavowed him. Black athletes like Jackie Robinson criticised him harshly and black soldiers were disappointed in him.

Eventually, Ali took his case to the US Supreme Court and won a unanimous victory in 1971 when the court ruled that "Ali met the three standards for conscientious objector status."

Till today, there hasn’t been a single sports figure in America who has displayed that dogged determination and steely conviction to rally behind a political or a social cause.

Today, athletes are endorsed by big brand names and are supported by big businesses. They know that millions are invested in them and while they make general statements on social media, they do not risk it all like Ali did.

In 1974, he defeated George Foreman and won the heavyweight title again.

But for me, he was a hero for beating the US government and taking a courageous stand against the Vietnam war, which was wrong and unethical on so many levels.

Last updated: June 10, 2016 | 17:10
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