Ali’s Greatest Fight; the sweet science of boxing, the bitter philosophy of dissidence, and the dicey art of jurisprudence

The most exciting fight of the 20th century did not take place in a boxing ring but in the sociopolitical-legal arena. This is the story of Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali, vs the United States Govt. (With special appearances from the who’s who of the 20th century)

Jack Johnson, the man whose victory over a white opponent led to massive race riots in major urban centers

Round 1 (Predecessors): Those who have heard the Ali story might not know that there was one black athlete, almost 60 years before him, who had caused nearly as much trouble and turmoil. Interestingly, that person too was a boxer, the heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson. To cut a long story short, Johnson destroyed white men in the ring, flaunted his relationships with white women and talked arrogantly to white reporters. His victory over a white opponent in one famous fight led to massive race riots and deaths in major urban centers, the likes of which weren’t repeated till Martin Luther King was shot dead some 60 years later!

White America was hell bent on having him beaten so that the superiority of the white man over the inferior black man could be affirmed. Democratic Presidential Nominee, William Jennings Bryan, telegraphed one of Johnson’s opponents: “God will forgive everything you do to that nigger in this fight”. (For the uninitiated, a point to note is that in those days, and indeed till Ali’s time, the heavyweight champion of the world was a very important title that meant a lot to a lot of people outside of sports. E.g., John F. Kennedy would call the champion Floyd Patterson to the White House to tell him that he must beat Sonny Liston since Liston had a bad reputation).

Prominent singers wrote racist songs against Johnson; he was compared to a barbarian fighting Caesar; a man who had nothing but the jungle behind him; etc, etc. To put it mildly, Johnson was ostracized and he became an archetype of the ‘bad nigger’. Therefore, later when two iconic black athletes came to prominence and were in a position to assert themselves, they chose instead to be docile, good Negroes, obedient and quiet.

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Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin 1936 as Hitler watched

These were the sprinter Jesse Owens who laid to waste Hitler’s Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and boxer Joe Louis who defeated the German Max Schmeling in their second fight just before World War 2 in 1938. Schmeling was backed by Hitler’s master of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round, and was lapped up by the mainstream. He was patronizingly and sickeningly called a “good nigger”. These black athletes didn’t talk back.

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Joe Louis: “A good nigger”
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Goebbels used Schmeling’s victory over Louis in their first fight.

The ghost of Jack Johnson had been laid to rest. Little did anyone know that things were about to change–and how! 

Round 2 (How Cassius took Rome): An eighteen years old boxer wins the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He is so gregarious and charming that fellow athletes later say he would have been elected the mayor of

A laugh with the sisters

the Olympic village if such an election had taken place. A Soviet reporter grills him about being a Negro representing the United States, where he is treated as a second-class citizen. Belying his youth (not to mention his later dissidence), the young champion responds: “The USA is the best country in the world, including yours … We have our problems, sure, but tell your readers we got qualified people working on that, and I am not worried about the outcome!” For all intents and purposes, the young Clay was all set to become a “credit to his race” and a “good nigger”.

He came back home to a resounding reception, and charmed people with what was to later become his omnipresent doggerel; his ability to compose rhymes on the spot, due to which many people have claimed that he was the first rapper in history. He recited the following verses and people lapped it up:


To make America the greatest is my goal / So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole

And for the USA won the Medal of Gold / Italians said, “You’re greater than the Cassius of old

We like your name, we like your game / So make Rome your home if you will.”

I said I appreciate kind hospitality 

But the USA is my country still / Cause they’re waiting to welcome in Louisville

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Cassius Clay and the Beatles in 1964: Five young men who were about to take the world by storm

Round 3 (Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee): The Olympic champion turned professional and slowly started his way towards a shot at the heavyweight championship of the world. He talked all the time, joked around with the media, and composed poems on the outcome of his fights and coined pet-names for his opponents. No one had ever seen such an athlete, let alone a black athlete. His artistry in the ring was such that it appeared he was performing a dance routine in the ring. But underneath all this charm, hidden from almost everyone, was a seething anger at racial injustice, and also a burgeoning racial pride. This came to the fore when the young Cassius joined the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist, religious organization. There he came under the tutelage of another firebrand, arguably the most electrifying human being in recent memory, Malcolm X.

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The mentor with his protege: Malcolm X and Cassius X

However, despite admitting admiration and sympathy for the Nation, Clay had still not openly announced his conversion, for fear of the repercussions. Right before Clay’s championship fight with Sonny Liston in 1964, Malcolm X came to be by his side. No one gave the young Clay a chance to beat the tough Sonny Liston, no one but Malcolm X. Malcolm had been recently suspended by the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad (ostensibly) over his remarks on John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy, a war-mongering hawk, who had taken America into Vietnam and

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JFK: The chickens came home to roost?

who had nearly brought the world to nuclear annihilation together with his “friend” Khrushchev, had been recently assassinated. Malcolm with his characteristic blunt honesty had said that Kennedy’s assassination was a case of “chickens coming home to roost”.

Of course, the real reason for Malcolm’s suspension was that he had discovered the philandering ways of Elijah Muhammad, and also cases of financial corruption. At the same time, Malcolm started receiving threats from within the Nation and came to know of plans of his murder.

During the lead up to the championship fight, Clay’s allegiance to the Nation came under heavy media scrutiny because Malcolm stayed with him all the time. The fight promoters warned Clay to renounce his affiliation with the Nation or see the fight get called off. The championship title was something that he had obviously dreamed about since he was a child. But again belying his 22 years, and showing steely resolve, he refused to obey and got ready to leave without fighting. The fight was called off. But at the last minute, a friend of the fight promoter directly asked Malcolm to leave Clay’s side as it was destroying Clay’s childhood dream. Malcolm obliged; he was allowed to come back on the fight night.

Till then it was Liston who, because of his surly demeanor and past criminal background, had been always considered to be the bad negro. But now ironically, a clean cut, Olympic champion, in the form of Cassius Clay, was considered even more evil than Liston. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote: “The most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin–180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout…(Clay’s) public utterances have all the modesty of a German ultimatum to Poland but his public performances run more to Mussolini’s navy.”

The fight turned out to be not a fight but a dance party in which Clay, true to his pre-fight predictions, floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. The stronger Liston could not touch the smarter, dancing Clay. Liston quit at the end of the sixth round, and Clay became the second youngest heavyweight champion in history.

Round 4: (I don’t have to be what you want me to be!)

Soon after the fight he openly announced his new religion and said that his name was now Cassius X. He also uttered what would become an anthem of black independence: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be what I want.” This was an anathema. Athletes were supposed to be one-dimensional cartoons who did their job of distracting the public while those in power went about doing serious business. And here was a young kid, a “nigger” of all people, who just didn’t understand how things worked. Basically, he was an “uppity nigger”.

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The teacher and the student estranged: Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X

One of the reasons Malcolm had been with Clay was because he wanted Clay to be an integral part of the new organization that he would form after breaking with the Nation. However, after Clay’s victory, Elijah Muhammad preempted Malcolm by declaring that he was bestowing upon Clay a new name: Muhammad Ali. This was an honor that even very senior members (such as Malcolm X) had not been granted. Malcolm later said of this shrewd move by Elijah: “He did it to prevent him (Ali) from coming with me.”

Hoover kept an eye on Ali and ordered his surveillance, an “honor” not bestowed upon a boxer since Jack Johnson. He figured inducting Ali into the army would keep him in line

Ali’s step of openly announcing his conversion, was not so much a religious statement as it was an in-your-face political statement aimed at “mighty whitey”.  It was like a slap to the white establishment. This young proud black man would not be the good negro, the good Christian, who looked to the white man for protection and provision. In many ways this was worse than Jack Johnson going around with white women. The result was immediate. He became a hate-figure among the whites. The white press refused to address him by his new name and kept calling him Clay. The general outpouring of hate was massive. Even some black leaders openly condemned him. Also, something more sinister and consequential happened. The day Ali announced his conversion to Islam, the infamous J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, the man whose antics would make the Gestapo proud, ordered his agents to find out Ali’s military draft status!!

Round 5 (What’s my name fool?):

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Frank Sinatra wanted the title “back in America”, as if Ali was not American

The first “tangible” repercussion of Ali’s disobedience came soon after. He was stripped by one of the governing bodies of boxing, World Boxing Association (WBA), of his title. The WBA commissioner ended his statement of revocation with the following words: “Of course Clay might be reinstated in five or six months if his conduct improves”. The message was loud and clear: an outspoken non-Christian, black man was not to be tolerated. Ali still held the titles from the other governing bodies. The former champion Floyd Patterson vowed to fight Ali to “bring the title back to America”. Patterson was a gentlemanly boxer, who was admired by many civil rights movement leaders, and also by whites. In short, he was a model of the good negro.

In his quest, Patterson was cheered on by none other than ol’ blue eyes, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra hated Ali and all that he stood for and also wanted Patterson to bring the title “back to America”. Like others, Patterson too had refused to call Ali by his new name. So all through the fight, after each punch, Ali would famously ask Patterson, “What’s my name fool? What’s my name Uncle Tom?” (the title of Dave Zirin’s book on dissidence in sports) The white press, true to their tradition of hypocrisy, called Ali’s performance in the fight ‘brutally sadistic’. After the fight, Patterson, ever the good negro, went to Sinatra to apologize for his loss but Sinatra gave him the cold shoulder. The title hadn’t been “brought back to America” after all.

Eldridge Cleaver, later to become leader of the Black Panthers, shortly after this fight wrote his landmark book, the black cultural manifesto, Soul on Ice. In it he explained the hatred towards Ali: Muhammad Ali is the first “free” black champion ever to confront white America…In the context of boxing, he is a genuine revolutionary, the black Fidel Castro

SOIcoverof boxing. To the mind of ‘white’ white America and ‘white’ black America, the heavyweight champion crown has fallen into enemy hands, usurped by a pretender to the throne. Ali is conceived as ‘occupying’ the heavyweight kingdom in the name of a dark, alien power, in much the same way as Castro was conceived as a temporary interloper, ‘occupying’ Cuba.”… “If ‘Bay of Pigs’ can be seen as a straight right hand to the psychological jaw of America then [Ali/Patterson] was a perfect left hook to the gut.” 

Round 6 (Draft That Nigger Clay): Hoover had set the machinery rolling to get Ali into the army. But it turned out that Ali had failed the aptitude test for army induction that he had taken some time earlier. Ali was re-tested to make sure he had not been faking it! A psychologist was assigned to watch over him as he took the test, to determine whether he was deliberately failing. Lo and behold, he failed again. He was not very good at mathematics, it turned out. The psychologist determined that Ali had not been faking it. But the general reaction of the white public was one of outrage and disgust. Representative William Ayers of Ohio channeled these feelings on the floor of the Congress: “Had I flunked math, I still could have peeled potatoes for the first two months of my army service…Anybody that can throw a punch like Cassius ought to be able to throw a knife around a potato.”

Congressman Mendel Rivers embarked on a speaking tour, crusading to have Ali reclassified: “Clay’s deferment is an insult to ever mother’s son serving in the armed forces.” Many other congressmen and senators were equally enraged and called for a Senate hearing on the matter. A lawyer in Georgia

Congressman Mendel Rivers, one of many who wanted to get the “nigger Clay” into the army

started a DRAFT THAT NIGGER CLAY campaign.

“Dear President Johnson…” letters started appearing in newspapers in which enraged people complained that a prominent black person was not being sent to the army due to the government’s weakness. President Johnson was so impressed by these letters that in a very unusual move, he personally assigned Secretary of the Army, Stephen Ailes, to write back letters to members of the public! What the white public didn’t realize (perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered even if they had realized) is that Ali had been singled out in the first place. Even getting him re-tested and assigning a psychologist to him were highly unusual acts (among other things).

Round 7 (I AIN’T GOT NO QUARREL WITH THEM VIET CONG):  What must be remembered is that initially the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement were not aligned. Civil rights leaders did not come out against the war. Some due to patriotism and others due to tactical reasons, as in not wanting to open up another front. One exception was of course SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee, the relatively unknown and forgotten heartbeat of the civil rights movement. People like Martin Luther King and other blacks leaders were important, but the heart of the movement really were the members of SNCC, without whose pro-active field-work, leaders would not have achieved much.

SNCC issued a white paper denouncing the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King still had not come out against the war. He privately regarded the war as unjust but his board at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) would not let him go public. The board did not want to alienate President Johnson’s administration.

Pentagon issued a directive in November 1965 lowering the mental aptitude percentile on army induction examinations from 30 to 15. Ali had scored 16 previously. Suspicious much? All of a sudden Ali was reclassified and was now eligible for induction! Robert Lipsyte, reporter for the New York Times, was with Ali the day he received word of his reclassification. Other reporters started arriving as they wanted Ali’s reaction on this development. Television trucks surrounded his residence. As the interviews kept happening, Lipsyte Bob Dylanrecalls that Ali started to hum the Bob Dylan song, Blowing in the Wind (The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind…the answer’s blowing in the wind…) And finally Ali, a lowly educated boxer, who was not yet even part of the anti-war movement, uttered the most memorable phrase to come from that young movement: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong”

Round 8 (The Name is Muhammad Ali): If Ali thought they had hated him earlier, he would have been shocked at the hate and vitriol that was directed his way after his famous utterance. “You cowardly, turncoat black rat. If I had a bomb I would blow you to hell”, “You better than my son? You black bastard, you. I pray to God that they draft you tomorrow. Draft you and shoot you on the spot!” These were some of the personal messages that he received.

The media were in on it as usual. One writer wrote: “…squealed like a cornered rat when tapped for the Army, should be shorn of his title.” Another wrote, “…Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” A writer in the Los Angeles Times warned Ali not to go near Lincoln’s statue: “Those will be real tears running down his cheeks!” Other epithets included, “The most disgusting character in memory to appear on the sports scene” etc, etc.

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Julian Bond, co-founder of the heartbeat of the civil rights movement, SNCC

Ali found himself thoroughly confused and alone at this time. The anti-war movement was not yet popular, and also the black leadership had not yet turned against the war. In fact some of them had even condemned Ali openly. Ali was in fact the most popular person to come out against the war yet. Julian Bond, a co-founder and stalwart of SNCC and one rare black leader who had come out against the war, says about Ali’s stand: “Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone. Here was a public figure with a national forum expressing something which needed to be said but which everybody was afraid to say for fear of being branded a traitor. It took tremendous courage.”

Ali’s next fight was to take place in Chicago.  The mayor of Chicago labeled Ali a traitor and hoped the fight would not take place in Chicago. At a city council meeting, an alderman demanded the fight be canceled. Chicago police superintendent also weighed in and urged for the fight to be called off.

Behind Ali’s back, one of the fight promoters struck a deal with the mayor, the governor, and the famous, influential paper of Chicago, The Chicago Tribuneto back off from anti-Ali rhetoric and let the fight take place, on the condition that Ali appear before the Illinois Athletic Commission to retreat from his anti-war remarks. When Ali came to know of this, he was unsure at first but finally agreed. He called the Illinois Athletic Commission Chairperson Joe Triner and apologized for “whatever embarrassment” he had caused. But Triner insisted that Ali appear personally before the three-person commission to issue his apology.

A meeting time was set and the news was leaked to the media, CLAY SET TO APOLOGIZE were the triumphant headlines the next day. On the day of the meeting, Ali arrived with his lawyer at the Illinois State Building. He was greeted by a huge line of war veterans holding up signs: “CLAY APOLOGIZE TO AMERICA”, “CLAY LOVE AMERICA OR LEAVE IT!” Across the street, a small group of supporters waved signs saying, “WE AIN’T GOT NO QUARREL WITH NO VIET CONG EITHER!”

Ali’s lawyer had given him a prepared type written statement. In the conference room, Chairman Triner said to Ali: “I understand you have a statement to read”. Ali had reached his decision. He discarded the paper and began to speak extempore: “I have no prepared statement. What I said in Miami, I should have said to the officials of the draft board, not to reporters. I apologize for not saying it to the proper people.”

The commissioners were shocked. One of them said, “To whom you made the remark is not important. Its the remark itself. Do you apologize for your unpatriotic remark, regardless to whom you said it?”

Ali’s lawyer sitting beside him was equally shocked. He whispered furiously in his ear: “Tell them you apologize. Go on. Tell them.”

The Chairman Triner intervened: “Cassius Clay, do you apologize to the American people, to the governor of this state, to the mayor of this city? Do you apologize for your unpatriotic remark?

“No, I do not apologize for what I said. I do not apologize.”

Triner was apoplectic: “Cassius Clay…”

“The name is Muhammad Ali”

He got up and headed for the door.

My word, these scenes occur only in the movies, not in real life. I am reminded here of the scene in the Matrix,

slave namewhere Agent Smith has Neo in a stranglehold (much like Triner had Ali in his grip) and

keeps calling him Mr Anderson. Finally, Neo breaks free saying: “My name is Neo”. Of course, no movie can capture the turmoil, excitement, distress and elation of the actual events surrounding that great real life fight.

Russell in an anti-war rally. Like Ali, Russell came under heavy fire for his anti-war stance

Round 9 (Moral Support from Across the Atlantic): State after state refused to sanction Ali’s fights. Right around that time, Ali received moral support from across the Atlantic from a cherish-able source. This was the great Bertrand Russell. Russell was easily the greatest public intellectual of the 20th century not to mention a highly influential mathematician, logician and philosopher. And he knew a thing or two about taking stands. In his letter to Ali, Russell showed his wisdom and his prescience. He wrote: “In the coming months there is no doubt that the men who rule Washington will try to damage you in every way open to them, but I am sure you know that you spoke for your people and for the oppressed everywhere in the courageous defiance of American power. They will try to break you because you are a symbol of a force they are unable to destroy, namely the aroused consciousness of a whole people determined no longer to be butchered and debased with fear and oppression. You have my wholehearted support.”

The outcry over Ali’s stand continued. Representative Frank Clark said on the floor of the Congress: “The heavyweight champion of the world turns my stomach. To welch or back off from the commitment of serving his country is as unthinkable as surrendering to Adolf Hitler or Mussolini would have been in my time.”

Round 10 (The Legal Games): Ali was offered many compromises. Join the special reserves, put on boxing shows for the soldiers, become their physical instructor, you would never have to fight in the frontlines, just let the establishment save face, etc. But he didn’t agree. So now it was up to his legal team to fight his case.His legal team decided to draw upon the Quran and filed a request for conscientious objector status.

The case made by Ali’s legal team was that Muslims don’t take part in wars that have not been sanctioned by an Islamic state. But later the legal team realized that under current laws, Ali would still need to perform two years of service in a non-combat role, something which he was against. So they changed their tactics again. They amended their request to seek exemption for Ali as a Muslim minister. This was because members of clergy were exempted from military service in any form! Now, the fact is that since Malcolm’s departure from the Nation, Ali had indeed acted as its most famous minister and regularly gave sermons all over the country.

On August 23, 1966, a special hearing was convened to hear Ali’s case. The judge could only give a recommendation to the Selective Services Board. To everyone’s surprise, the judge ruled in favor of Ali. But it was only a recommendation.

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Muhammad Ali preaching. Was he a “great theologian”? No. Was he a minister? A case could be made!

The Justice Department quickly wrote a letter to the Selective Services Board saying that Ali had failed to satisfy the most important tenet of conscientious objection–he was not opposed to war in any form. The department also argued that Ali’s beliefs were a matter of convenience and not sincerely held.

Mendel Rivers whom we met earlier in the story, was now the chairperson of the House Armed Service Committee. He again went on his tirade: “Listen to this. If that great theologian of Black Muslim power, Cassius Clay, is deferred, you watch what happens in Washington. We are going to do something if that board takes your boy and leaves Clay home to double-talk. What has happened to the leadership of our nation when a man, any man regardless of color, can with impunity advise his listeners to tell the President when he is called to serve in the armed forces, ‘Hell no, I am not going.’”

As expected, the Board denied Ali’s request for exemption as a conscientious objector and minister. The decision was obviously political. United States Attorney Carl Walker says: “This is the only case I ever encountered where the hearing examiner recommended conscientious objector status and it was turned down…I am convinced the government truly believed they would have to make an example of Ali or it would start a chain reaction of black men refusing to join the army.”

Ali would need to join the army as soon has he was called up–or go to jail!  

Round 11 (The Fighter inspires the Preacher to Step Up)

The anti-war movement was picking steam. At the same time, something very important was happening. Martin Luther King was about to take the step towards political metamorphosis. He had been shifting from his battle against racial segregation in the South, to economic justice in the entire country. Also, he was about to come openly against the war. And thus he was about to become very dangerous. When he only talked about integration in the South, he was relatively tolerable, in fact he was a darling of the liberals. But once he started talking about socialism and about American imperialism, he was, in the words of Hoover, a stooge of the communists, a dangerous subversive man, who was attacked from all sides, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites. All this was about to happen, and Ali was an influence.

Julian Bond recalls that King was opposed to the war from the start, but could not make his opinions known: “Martin had opposed the war for a long time but his hands were tied by our Board. Then Ali spoke out publicly, he took the consequences, and I believe it had an influence on Martin. Here was somebody who had a lot to lose and was willing to risk it all too say what he believed.”

King and Ali happened to be in the same city per chance. King requested a private meeting with him, in which he thanked Ali for “the courage of your actions”. Later he told a newspaper: “As Muhammad Ali has said, we are all victims of the same system of oppression.”

Finally, King came out openly and called the war “morally and politically unjust”. And once King underwent his political metamorphosis, true to his proud tradition, he went all the way. He said things much more radical than Ali had ever said, more radical than most others, save for the likes of the fiery and way-ahead-of-his-time Malcolm X.

King said on US imperialism, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government…I cannot be silent”. And he said the following about capitalism: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.

Just like Ali had been attacked when he had come out against the war, Martin Luther King too was attacked from all sides. The white liberals were outraged, but some of the harshest criticism came from the leadership of the black community. The famous NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) passed a resolution against his anti-war views. Just like in their move against Ali, the reason Black leaders did not support Dr King was either they were truly patriotic and loved American imperialism or they felt that it was a bad tactical move to be anti-war.

The later, radical, Dr King was too dangerous to be allowed to carry on?

Just so that people remember, Dr King was killed as he was leading a sanitation workers strike. Nothing whatsoever to do with seats in buses or integrated restaurants, schools and cinemas, and other such things that popular culture keeps drilling into our heads about him. Those battles were indeed Herculean and required colossal courage and sacrifices, but Dr King had moved on to even bigger things and had become way too dangerous.

Round 12 (Hell No, I won’t Go): Ali received a “letter” from President Johnson. It was a standard call for induction. He was to report for induction in Houston, Texas.

Ali left Chicago airport for his destination. As the plane took off, the captain (probably sympathetic to Ali’s cause) announced on the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Heavyweight Champion of the World is your traveling companion.” An hour later the plane experienced heavy turbulence. People panicked. A woman reading the Bible started screaming at Ali: God is punishing us because he’s on the plane! He’s punishing us because we’re helping His enemy! Cassius Clay, you turned against the true Christian God! God wants you off this plane! O forgive us, O Lord!

He went to the municipal courthouse where the induction was to take place. Before leaving, he had talked to his mother on the phone who had advised him to “do the right thing. If I were you, I would join the Army. Do you understand me, son?” Lest one forgets, Ali was only 25 years old at the time. This reminds me of lines from Dylan’s famous song, The Times they are a changin’:

Come mothers and fathers 
Throughout the land 
And don’t criticize 
What you can’t understand 
Your sons and your daughters 
Are beyond your command

Once inside the induction center, he didn’t step forward when his name was called out. He had officially refused to be inducted. When Ali left the courthouse, an elderly white woman accosted him with a miniature American flag. She yelled, “You heading straight for jail! You ain’t no champ no more. You aint’ never gonna be champ no more. You get down on your knees and beg forgiveness from God. My son’s in Vietnam, and you no better than he is. He’s there fighting and you here safe. I hope you rot in jail.”

More concrete backlash was also swift. The New York State Athletic Commission immediately (they were on line with the induction center in Houston, literally just waiting for the news!) decided to suspend Clay’s boxing license indefinitely and to withdraw recognition of him as World Heavyweight Champion.” Other states quickly followed suit and Ali was effectively banned from fighting in the US.

For the second time in his life, Ali faced abuse that made previous hatred directed at him seem mild. First he had attracted hate because of his faith conversion. Then came his utterance, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and now that he had officially refused to be inducted, the previous two outpourings of hatred seemed rather restrained. One journalist wrote, “…Clay is a slick opportunist who clowned his way to the top. Hail to Cassius Clay, the best fighter pound for pound that Leavenworth prison will ever receive.”

Washington Post weighed in thus: “Clay seems to have gone past the borders of faith. He has reached the boundaries of fanaticism.” An editorial in the New York Times, furiously declared: “Citizens cannot pick and choose which wars they wish to fight any more than they can pick and choose which laws they wish to obey.” Congressman Robert Michel demanded on the floor of the congress that “Clay” (never Ali of course) be thrown into jail immediately.

Ali also received some much needed support. Two days after his induction refusal, Dr King praised Ali in a sermon in Atlanta: “He is giving up even fame. He is giving up millions of dollars in order to stand up for what his conscience tells him is right. No matter what you think of Muhammad Ali’s religion, you have to admire his courage.”

And then Dr King used Ali’s example to say something deadly dangerous, his most radical statement about the war till then: “Every young man in this country who believes that this war is abominable and unjust should file as a conscientious objector.” Regarding accusations against Ali of being a traitor to his country, Dr King said, “There is a very dangerous development in the nation now to equate dissent with disloyalty. I don’t know about you but I ain’t going to study war no more.”

But just to be clear, despite growing protests, anti-war stance was still largely unpopular. President Johnson’s administration commissioned a Gallup poll to determine the impact of Dr King’s public endorsement of Ali. It turned out that most Americans, white and black, had no sympathy for Ali’s stand!

Consider the complexity of the situation: many black soldiers in Vietnam had earlier marched with Dr King for civil rights. Integrated restaurants, integrated cinemas…integrated army? And now Dr King was telling them that the war was all wrong? Lieutenant Colonel Warren Kynard, a black man, responded: “I don’t believe Martin Luther King is qualified enough in international relations to open his mouth on American policy on Vietnam.”

This was the year 1967 and the tide had still not turned! In the subsequent court case, an all white jury took merely twenty one minutes (!) to find Ali guilty. He was given five years in prison. More importantly, the judge ordered his passport to be confiscated (so that he couldn’t go abroad and fight). Ali could stay out of prison pending appeal.

Three days after his conviction, Ali appeared in an anti war rally in Los Angeles for the first time. He was the most visible and popular symbol of the anti-war movement. He stood on top of a garbage can and addressed the crowd of thirty thousand protestors: “I am with you. Anything designed for peace and to stop the killing I’m for one hundred percent. I’m not a leader. I’m not here to advise you. But I encourage you to express yourself and to stop this war.”

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Reagan: “That draft dodger will never fight in my state”

Later on, more than a thousand LAPD officers baton charged the protestors. Ronald Reagan was the governor of California at that time and he had made his position very clear: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement!” 

While his appeal was pending, Ali went from state to state to get his fights sanctioned but met with defeat everywhere. Reagan declared: “That draft dodger will never fight in my state.” African Americans generally remember Reagan as the man who had done his utmost to thwart their progress.

It is not in the least ironic that war-mongering Barack Obama,a black man,

In the footsteps of Uncle Reagan: "I will eat y'all dissidents, y'all hear?"
In the footsteps of Reagan: All dissidence must be crushed!

who has come down more heavily on dissidents than all past US presidents combined, singles out Reagan as an inspirational president.

Round 13 (Senior Lecturer, Subject: anything related to war and black freedom): Ali, not being able to fight and having to pay his legal team (among other things) was soon out of money. Things came to such a pass that he had to resort to borrowing money from friends. To earn money he began lecturing on the college lecture circuit. He was welcomed by young, passionate students, with open arms and admiration but also attacked by those others who were pro-war. His wife of the time Belinda recalls that Ali would get really depressed as some hater would rush to him yelling, “You draft

Ali lecturing on the college circuit
Ali lecturing on the college circuit

dodging nigger, go home”. Belinda would tell Ali that the lectures were their only source of livelihood and he had no business getting depressed. To this Ali would reply to her, “You are not out there getting embarrassed. I am out there getting embarrassed. What would you do if someone did that to you?”

In 1968, on the first day of the Vietnamese New year (Tet), VietCong launched a massive offensive. Though it was later repulsed by US forces, the so-called ‘Tet Offensive’ constituted a symbolic victory for the Viet Cong. And it could be said that this was the event that saw the rise of anti-war feeling among the general populace. Later on the news of the My Lai massacre came out. Courageous students all over the US who had been protesting for a long time, stepped up their resistance. For the first time, according to polls, 56 percent of the population opposed the war. Who was to “blame” for this? Was it perhaps the collective consciousness of a population roused up against a murderous war? No, a boxer called Cassius Clay AKA Muhammad Ali was to be “blamed”. This is what Congressman Claude Pepper said on the floor of the congress: “If any one individual contributed to the contagious disrespect for law and love of country, then it would have to be our disposed fighting king.”

Some time later Dr Martin Luther King was gunned down. Upon Dr King’s death, the US saw such violent race riots that had been last seen when Ali’s spiritual predecessor Jack Johnson had defeated the white Jim Jeffries in the ring some 60 years earlier! As the political climate in the country continued to change radically, so did support for Ali continue to increase.

Round 14 (Return of the King): A new lawyer in Ali’s legal team decided to challenge the athletic commission for canceling Ali’s boxing license on the grounds that he was a convict. After carefully going through the records for months, the legal team discovered that through history there had been many convicted boxers who had been allowed to fight as their appeals pended. Ali’s team won this case and his boxing license was restored!

Ali was no longer the same fighter. He had been inactive for nearly four years and had lost his most potent weapon: his blinding speed. He won a couple of fights before he lost an extremely close fight against the heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. The fight with Frazier had come to be seen as a fight between right and wrong, between the

Nixon jumped up and down on the defeat of "that draft dodger asshole"
President Nixon jumped up and down on the defeat of “that draft dodger asshole”

patriot and the draft-dodger. It was like a litmus test of people’s moral, social and political outlooks in life. If you supported Ali, one knew where you stood, and vice versa. On Ali’s defeat, anti-war activists and black rights activists were greatly saddened. In the White House, President Nixon is reported to have jumped up and down celebrating the defeat of “that draft-dodging asshole”.

(Round 15: Technical Knockout): However, eight days later, Ali finally won, that biggest, longest, fight of his career. His appeal in the supreme court returned an 8-0 verdict in his favor. How this verdict was reached is an exciting story itself, which can be seen in more detail in this new documentary.

In short, the legal point under contention was whether Ali should be exempted from induction as a conscientious objector to the war. The Chief Justice of the supreme court, Warren Burger, had been picked by Nixon, to tilt the balance to the right. And Burger had mostly

Chief Justice Warren Burger: Nixon's strategical choice
Chief Justice Warren Burger: Nixon’s choice

obliged by favoring the administration on many issues. Burger knew who his enemies were in the panel, those who would take more liberal stands, and who his friends were, those who would take more conservative stands. Among his conservative allies was Justice John Harlan. Ali’s legal team fought a good fight, and managed to get three justices on their side. However, the other five justices, including Harlan, decided to uphold the conviction. The result was 5-3 against Ali. He was going to jail.

Now the legal tradition is that if the chief justice himself is on the side of the majority in a vote, then another member of the majority is assigned to write the court’s decision. Burger chose Harlan to write it.

Harlan got together with his clerks to write the decision. The clerks were more radical than the justices; they opposed the war. They persuaded Harlan to take home Elijah Muhammad’s book “Message to the Blackman in America”.

Harlan was dying of cancer. He read the book at night in his home. And by morning he had completely changed his decision. He wrote a memo in which he explained his reasons for believing that Ali was a truthful

Justice John Harlan, instead of writing the court decision, changed his own mind!
Justice John Harlan, instead of writing the court decision, changed his own mind!

conscientious objector to the war. Burger was furious. The vote was now 4-4. A tie vote would still send Ali to prison. He was not yet “out of jail”.

Justice Potter Stewart who had voted for Ali, wanted to save him. He and his clerks went through the case again, very carefully, looking for a way out. And they found it!

As we saw in Round 6 of the story, the Justice Department had sent a letter to the Selective Services board saying that Ali’s objection to the war was not sincere. However, in presenting the case before the court, Solicitor General Giswold had conceded that Ali’s beliefs were based on “religious training and belief”. Griswold had been asked by the panel whether he believed Ali had been sincere in his beliefs. He had replied in the affirmative. This was a serious legal error. Some people believe that due to the changing political climate of the country, Griswold himself may have deliberately provided a loophole so that the conviction could be reversed. A compromise could now be reached.

Justice Stewart and his clerks spent all night searching for

Justice Potter Stewart and his clerks found a precedent to let Ali off the hook on a technicality
Justice Potter Stewart and his clerks found a precedent to let Ali off the hook on a technicality

precedents and they found one. The 1955 case of Sicurella vs the United States, also involved a similar error by the Justice Department. And this error had been enough to overrule that conviction.

So Ali escaped by the skin of his teeth. He got off on a legal technicality! He was free. A free man at last! And thus the most exciting fight of the 20th century came to a victorious end for Cassius Clay, the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali–and then shook up the world!

(Endnote: As US continues to launch murderous wars and kill and maim innocent people throughout the world, the liberals, both blacks and whites, continue their shameful support for the US war machinery (the “conservatives” are better left unmentioned). However, the spirit of radicals like Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and much more importantly, that of countless faceless and nameless activists, continues to inspire not only peace loving people in the US but throughout the world) 

2 responses to “Ali’s Greatest Fight; the sweet science of boxing, the bitter philosophy of dissidence, and the dicey art of jurisprudence”

  1. WOW, that was really long and informative piece. I love Ali, my brother taught me so much about him and his perseverance.

  2. Muhammad Ali’s courage,has inspired millions,world wide.None so much,more than my self,who has spent my life fighting injustice,where ever it rears its ugly head,in my native land. I learnt from the Greatest.God bless Muhammad Ali!

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