Even Before he Was ‘the Greatest,’ Muhammad Ali Was Willing to Stand Up for What he Believed In

Muhammad Ali leaves federal court in June of 1967 with a strong 'no comment' for reporters. He is on trial for refusing to be inducted into the Armed Services.  (ED KOLENOVSKY/AP)
Muhammad Ali leaves federal court in June of 1967 with a strong ‘no comment’ for reporters. He is on trial for refusing to be inducted into the Armed Services. (ED KOLENOVSKY/AP)

by Flip Bondy

I was the Vietnam War protestor. My dorm-mate, Joe, was the ROTC recruit. We were good friends at the University of Wisconsin, bound by somewhat limited social schedules and a love of hockey.

Our disparate politics, however, were incomprehensible to each other. How could I march with those rowdy radicals, throwing rocks through downtown windows? How could he support such a failed cause and a corrupt President?

On March 8, 1971, the debate took on a new urgency. We bundled up and headed through the cold for the theater where Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier would be shown live on a remote telecast from Madison Square Garden. And of course, our rooting preferences were predictable: The radical from the East would cheer for Ali. The conservative Midwesterner would support Frazier.

Ali lost that day, we all know, and it was generally a very sad night on the Madison campus. I resented Joe a bit more, sneered at his military uniform the next morning. There was a sense that the protest forces had lost a very real battle — as if Ali had been tear-gassed alongside us in the streets, or a rally had been dispersed.

In the years that followed, I would learn there were grays to that particular boxing match that I did not comprehend at the time; that Frazier was in some ways more connected to the black community than Ali, and that “The Greatest” had hurled some very hurtful labels at Frazier, like “Uncle Tom,” without cause or much concern for their effect.

But back then, in a time even more polarized than today, Ali represented much more than a boxing champion or a title belt. He was the embodiment of several social movements, all of them anti-establishment: He was a conscientious objector. He was a Black Muslim. And he was not going to take any nonsense from the U.S. government.

“Muhammad Ali is the first ‘free’ black champion ever to confront white America,” Eldridge Cleaver wrote in “Soul on Ice.” “In the context of boxing, he is a genuine revolutionary, the black Fidel Castro of boxing.”

With all the acclaim and love now showered upon Ali in his death, it is just as important to remember how hated this man once was in some quarters; how he once was reviled by many, even as he sacrificed his titles and his fortune. Before he was hailed universally, he was a divisive figure, not that different in his time from Jane Fonda. For some reason, however, Ali was forgiven more easily than Fonda over the years. Some of that forgiveness, frankly, might have been born of condescension, from guilt mixed with pity toward an increasingly vulnerable soul.

At his peak of prowess and then a bit later, Ali couldn’t land a TV commercial for anything more prestigious than roach spray. This very newspaper, The News, once carried on a terrible crusade against him. Its columnist, Dick Young, who would later become friends with the boxer, insisted on calling him, “Cassius Clay,” long after he changed what he always termed his “slave name.” Other white sportswriters were no less antagonistic. Jimmy Cannon had famously trumpeted Joe Louis as “a credit to his race, the human race.” But when it came to Ali, Cannon reached his limits.

“Boxing has been turned into an instrument of hate,” Cannon lamented. “Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit.”

Ali revealed his membership in the Nation of Islam shortly after becoming champion, giving America little time to process his rapid sporting ascension. On March 6, 1964, he was given a tour of the United Nations by Malcolm X and then renamed Muhammad Ali that same evening by Elijah Muhammad. Ali eventually would spurn Malcolm X for Elijah Muhammad, but white America was never very interested in this nuanced split.

Many journalists and a few foolish opponents, like Ernie Terrell, continued to call him Cassius Clay, but Ali refused to answer to that name. In 1966, after his draft status was upgraded to 1A, Ali refused to serve in the Army. With a poetic innocence, he produced a quote that would be repeated over the next decade by millions of protesters and draft dodgers: “I ain’t got not quarrel with those Vietcong,” he said. And then, more pointedly, he said, “No Vietcong ever called me n—–.”

He declared he wouldn’t travel thousands of miles just to wage a white man’s war on darker-skinned people. He became a hero to future mavericks, men like Dr. John Carlos, the sprinter who would hold his fist up and his head down during the Star-Spangled Banner on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics.

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