Civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (above) came to his defense.
By Martin Gallagher
On Feb. 17, 1966, Muhammad Ali learned that he had been reclassified 1A by his Louisville selective service board.
He had originally been disqualified by a substandard score on a mental aptitude test. But a subsequent lowering of criteria made him eligible to go to war. The timing, however, was suspicious to some; the contract with the Louisville millionaires had run out, and Nation members were taking over as Ali’s managers and promoters.
“Why me?” Ali said when reporters swarmed around his rented Miami cottage to ask about his new draft status. “I buy a lot of bullets, at least three jet bombers a year, and pay the salary of 50,000 fighting men with the money they take from me after my fights.”
But as the reporters continued to press him with questions about the war, the geography of Asia and his thoughts about killing Vietcong, he snapped, “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.”
The remark was front-page news around the world. In America, the news media’s response was mostly unfavorable, if not hostile. The sports columnist Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”
Most of the press refused to refer to Ali by his new name. When two black contenders, Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell, insisted on calling him Cassius Clay, Ali taunted them in the ring as he delivered savage beatings.
On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to be drafted and requested conscientious-objector status. He was immediately stripped of his title by boxing commissions around the country. Several months later he was convicted of draft evasion, a verdict he appealed. He did not fight again until he was almost 29, losing three and a half years of his athletic prime.
They were years of personal and intellectual growth, however, as Ali supported himself on the college lecture circuit, offering medleys of Muslim dogma and boxing verse. In the question-and-answer sessions that followed, Ali was forced to explain his religion, his Vietnam stand and his opposition (unpopular on most campuses) to marijuana and interracial dating. Now the “onliest boxer in history that people asked questions like a senator” developed coherent answers.
During his exile from the ring, Ali starred in a short-lived Broadway musical, “Big Time Buck White,” one of several commercial ventures. There was a fast-food chain called Champburger and a mock movie fight with the popular former champion Rocky Marciano in which Ali outboxed the slugger until being knocked out himself in the final round.
The broadcaster Howard Cosell, one of Ali’s most steadfast supporters in the news media, was responsible for keeping him on television, both as an interview subject and as a commentator on boxing matches.
As Ali’s draft-evasion case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, he returned to the ring on Oct. 26, 1970, through the efforts of black politicians in Atlanta. The fight, which ended with a quick knockout of the white contender Jerry Quarry, was only a tuneup for Ali’s anticipated showdown with Frazier, the new champion. But it was a night of glamour and history as Coretta Scott King, Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sidney Poitier turned out to honor Ali. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy presented him with the annual Dr. King award, calling him “the March on Washington all in two fists.”
“The Fight,” as the Madison Square Garden bout with Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, was billed, lived up to expectations as an epic match. With Norman Mailer ringside taking notes for a book and Frank Sinatra shooting cover photos for Life magazine, Ali stood toe to toe with Frazier and slugged it out as if determined to prove that he had “heart,” that he could stand up to punishment. Frazier won a 15-round decision. Both men suffered noticeable physical damage.
To Ali’s boosters, the money he had lost standing up for his principles and the beating he had taken from Frazier proved his sincerity. To his critics, the bloody redemption meant he had finally grown up. The Supreme Court also took a positive view. On June 28, 1971, it unanimously reversed a lower court decision and granted Ali his conscientious-objector status.