Boxer's battle with the U.S. government made him a villain to some and a hero to others.
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 1999
On a chilly, rainy day in Houston, Muhammad Ali refused to take one step forward.
It was a non-event, really, Ali ignoring the calling of his name by an induction officer at the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station. And it was a step -- or non-step -- in an odyssey that began 14 months earlier and ended four years later.
Still, that moment as much as any in his extraordinary career allowed America -- white America, really -- to steal more than three years of his livelihood and helped elevate him from heavyweight boxing champion to martyr to citizen of the world.
He stopped Sonny Liston twice, beat Joe Frazier twice, rope-a-doped the heavyweight title back from George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, lost it then won it a third time. He was almost certainly the world's most recognizable man. He still is.
Perhaps he stayed in the ring too long, accelerating the Parkinson's syndrome that has slowed him to a virtual crawl. Still, he is Ali. Still, he is The Greatest.
He came a long way from the 12-year-old Cassius Clay whose new bicycle had been stolen and who told a Louisville policeman who happened to coach boxers at a downtown gym. The youngster was ill-educated but quick, smart and gifted as a fighter.
In the 1960 Rome Olympics, Clay won the light heavyweight gold medal and, in the process, captivated the media with his humor and his brashness. On Feb. 25, 1964, as a 7-1 underdog, Clay won the heavyweight title. Liston, a seemingly invincible thug who surprisingly was smaller than the perfectly proportioned 6-foot-3, 210-pound challenger, didn't answer the bell for the seventh round.
Clay was attending Black Muslim meetings by then. Within months he renounced his parents' Christianity. Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, bestowed upon him a new name: Muhammad Ali. It meant, he said, "worthy of all praise most high." Ali defeated Liston in a rematch, knocking him out in the first round with what he called an "anchor punch" and what many called a phantom punch because they never saw it.
His next fight was against former champion Floyd Patterson, who still called him Clay and said: "The image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation." Ali humiliated Patterson, torturing him physically and verbally before the bout was stopped in the 12th round.
He was, by then, being compared with another black champion, Jack Johnson, who had been equally outspoken, outrageous -- and infuriating to white America -- more than 50 years earlier.
The Vietnam War was heating up and the nation was taking sides. Congress, President Johnson and the military were engaged in skirmishes over how many troops were being committed to the war and how long it would last.
On Feb. 17, 1966, Ali's draft board reclassified him 1A, fit for duty. Twice he had been given a deferment after failing mental tests. "For two years the government caused me international embarrassment, letting people think I was a nut ... and now they jump up and make me 1A without even an official notification or test!" he shouted when the media descended upon him.
The interviews were non-stop, the same questions over and over: What did he think about the war?
Eventually, one newsman asked, "What do you think about the Vietcong?"
Ali, frustrated and exhausted, replied, without thinking: "I ain't got nothing against them Vietcong."
It wasn't exactly Joe Louis entering the Army during World War II and saying, "We will win because we are on God's side."
Ali's quote -- but not the circumstances in which it was said -- created a firestorm. Red Smith, one of many columnists who refused to recognize Ali's having changed his name, wrote in the New York Times: ". . . Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war."
Ali had supporters, too, particularly ABC broadcaster Howard Cosell, who defended his constitutional right of free speech. But the establishment was overwhelmingly against him. State boxing commissions refused to sanction his fights. His next four title defenses against mediocre opponents were in Canada, England and West Germany.
His popularity outside the United States mushroomed. Inside it, too, so much so that by late 1966 boxing commissions began licensing his bouts again. More mediocre challengers came and went.
And then it was April28, 1967, and he was in Houston, refusing to take that step.
Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title. Again, state athletic commissions refused to permit him to fight.
As much a villain as he was to much of "the establishment," Ali also was a hero to civil rights activists and antiwar protesters, willing to give up everything for a principle. "All I did was stand up for what I believed," he told Thomas Hauser for a 1991 biography, Muhammad Ali: His life and Times. "There were people who thought the war in Vietnam was right. And those people, if they went to war, acted just as brave as I did."
On May 8 he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Houston. After a two-day trial in June an all-white jury took 20 minutes to convict him. He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000, both maximum penalties. He remained free on appeal, but his passport was confiscated.
Ali, unable to fight, traveled the country, lecturing at colleges and Muslim meetings, learning as much as he taught. Meanwhile, Frazier became the heavyweight champion -- but only, many fans believed, until Ali returned.
Ali was in exile for 3 1/2 years until the mood of the nation had changed sufficiently for him to be licensed to fight in Atlanta. On Oct. 26, 1970, he stopped Jerry Quarry in three rounds.
On March 8, 1971, in a highly anticipated match of two undefeated heavyweights, Ali fought Frazier at Madison Square Garden. It was brutal, neither giving ground. Frazier floored Ali in the 15th round and won a unanimous decision. Ali won, too. In defeat he won back much of the public that had despised him.
There was little public indignation when, on June28, 1971, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, ruling the Justice Department had misled Selective Service by advising that Ali's claim as a conscientious objector was neither sincere nor based on religious beliefs.
He had once said, "One good thing about America, you stand up for your rights and people will eventually adjust to it." Today, Ali is almost universally beloved.