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Mphammed Ali: The Greatest

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Muhammed Ali: The Greatest

By: John Dabonka

Hudson County Community College

Professor M. Teke

April 19, 2018


In 1964, Cassius Clay, a gold metal boxer, defeated the “unbeatable” Sonny Liston. The following day, Cassius Clay, bolstered by his mentor Malcolm X, stepped in front of a room of journalists to declare his conversion to the Nation of Islam and that he was changing his name to Muhammed Ali.  This was in response to the racism that a young Cassius Clay grew up with and his own understanding of manhood. Ali once offered a story in which he returned from winning the U.S. Olympic Gold medal only to be denied service in restaurant because he was black.  After fielding hostile questions, he voiced the words that would become his lifelong anthem and would forever change the world of sports: ''I don't have to be what you want me to be.''  His affiliation with the Black Muslims, and subsequent name change, made him a national pariah and outraged many of the country's leading sportswriters, who were stunned by an athlete who dared to voice a political opinion. As a result, most of America's sports pages continued to refer to Ali by what he called his ''his slave name,'' Cassius Clay.

In 1966, J. Edgar Hoover and the American government, paranoid about Ali's influence on black youths, decided that the easiest way to keep a troublemaker in line would be to keep him under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam for a few years. Although Ali had already been declared ineligible for military service, the Army changed its eligibility standards, and suddenly Ali was targeted for induction.  When Ali's draft notice came as he was training for his upcoming title defense bout, Ali uttered the phrase that would earn him a place as the most despised man in America (at the time): ''I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.''  Ali's words set off a firestorm, earning him vicious condemnation throughout much of the news media and most of the country. Ali did show up for his induction ceremony in Houston, Texas, but refused to step forward when his name was called. It wasn’t as if he were an unknown draft dissenter. He was after all the World's Heavyweight Boxing Champion and he was immediately arrested for 'dodging the draft'.

Within minutes of his induction refusal, same day, April 28, 1967, the New York State Athletic Commission stripped him of his title, declaring his actions ''detrimental to the best interests of boxing,'' Ali was ultimately convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison, a sentence subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, after Ali endured years in internal exile and a legal battle tougher than fighting Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman combined. He lost millions of dollars and spent many of the years fighting in court during the peak of his career. Through it all, he declared, ''My principles are more important than the money or my title.'

Ali was at the center of one of the most contentious political debates of American history. He framed his argument in terms of race and the history of abuse against blacks in the United States. Ali explained, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?” In this way he professed sympathy with brown people, victims of colonialism, imperialism and cold war exploitation all over the world. Consistent with the spectacle that defined his boxing career, he was brash, course and combative with his ideological opponents.

The government actually offered Ali the same compromise given to Joe Louis in World War II. He could fight exhibitions fights as part of the USO- entertainment and shows for the troops and he could keep his title without seeing a battlefield. But Ali refused, saying, ''I'd be just as guilty as the ones doing the killing.'

Widespread protests against the Vietnam War had not yet begun, but Ali articulated a reason to oppose the war for a generation of young Americans, particularly black youths and his words served as a touchstone for the racial and antiwar sentiment that would infiltrate most of the 1960's. Ali's example inspired others, like Martin Luther King Jr.,  who had been reluctant to alienate the Johnson administration, to voice his own opposition to the war for the first time.

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