So Much History With Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali and Richard Nixon
Late last night I heard of the death of Muhammad Ali. Though not a boxing fan–in fact I think it not a sport but a barbaric undertaking–I was already thinking how his obituary would read. After all Ali was simply fascinating as his life were part and parcel of the larger themes of the times. The New York Times, as is their custom, had a superb end of life story.
On Feb. 17, 1966, a day already roiled by the Senate’s televised hearings on the war in Vietnam, 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.”
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.
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.”