Muhammad Ali series: PART ONE

When Cassius Clay became Heavyweight Champ in 1964 he was already disliked by almost everyone. American’s didn’t like the way he bragged, went on and on about how he was so handsome and the greatest boxer ever. Nobody likes a showboat, right? Even after he dominated Sonny Liston, people didn’t take it seriously because Liston quit and wasn’t knocked down. The fight must have been fixed they said.

The perception went from dislike to contempt when Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam the day after his victory. The Nation of Islam was considered a black, extremist hate group that preached for African-American independence by any means necessary. At the time when Martin Luther King was fighting for integration, the Nation of Islam was for complete separation. Rumours were already being spread about Clay’s involvement with the Nation when their most public figure and probably the most feared man in the country, Malcolm X, was seen hanging around Clay before the Liston fight.

It went from contempt to pure hatred when, a few days later, Clay announced the Nation’s leader had given him a new name: Muhammad Ali. No one took Ali seriously and dismissed him as a joke. Everyone – journalists, sportscasters, fellow boxers – refused to call Ali by his new name and it took years before it was truly accepted.

What couldn’t be ignored however, was Ali’s brilliance in the ring.

From 1964-1967, Ali defended his title 9 times. He beat Liston in their rematch with his famous Phantom Punch in the first round. Again, the public weren’t convinced by the performance as Liston went down like a sack of potatoes from what seemed like an average punch. They were sure the fight was fixed. Even Ali screamed at Liston to get up because he knew that no one would believe it. But Ali proved himself over the next eight bouts with devastating displays of speed and power. These included what is considered his greatest display of skill against Cleveland Williams and the infamous “What’s my name?” fight against Ernie Terrell. Before the fight, Terrell refused to call Ali by his new name so Ali embarrassed and punished him during the fight, screaming “What’s my name?” between blows and deliberately prolonging the match over the full 15 rounds (here’s a great clip of their animosity towards each other and the fight itself).

Even though Ali was untouchable in the ring, things got much worse outside it when public perception towards him went from pure hatred to white-hot, murderous rage in 1967. That’s when he was deemed eligible for the draft into the United States Armed Forces for the Vietnam War. Upon hearing of this (after already taken and failed the Army entrance exam in 1964), Ali said his now famous statement that became news headlines around the world, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong … they never called me ‘nigger'”. Ali refused to be drafted due to his religious principles and claimed ‘conscientious objector’ status. He wouldn’t have actually had to fight in the war and could have just toured Vietnam and boxed in exhibition matches for the troops, but Ali remained firm on his stance. It came to a head when he was called up for his induction meeting. Ali’s name would be called out and he would have to step forward to accept being drafted. Upon not stepping forward the first time he was warned that refusing the draft was a criminal act and he could be imprisoned. Ali acknowledged and again refused to take a step forward. He was taken away, indicted and was considered a draft-dodging coward by most of the country. (Ali being interviewed about not going to war.) 

Before he was charged of a crime, let alone convicted, the boxing commissions stripped Ali of his title and he was no longer allowed to box at all. Two months later, he was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and fined $10,000. Ali appealed, and the case spent years in the court system, during which time Ali wasn’t allowed to leave the country or box.

In total, it was over three years before Ali was allowed to fight again in 1971. THREE YEARS! This would have been Ali’s prime as fighter – who knows what brilliance we could have seen from him in those missing years? During his exile, Ali made money speaking at colleges around the country and became a hero to the counter-culture and civil rights movements. (Ali speaking at colleges.)

During all this time from 1964-1971, Ali never backed down on his religious beliefs and never preached violence or hatred – just empowerment for his fellow African-Americans. He maintained his dignity and integrity while sacrificing the heavyweight title he worked so hard for and millions of dollars in lost fight money. He became bigger than boxing.

BUT there’s still more to the Ali legend, much more. Come back on Tuesday to read the final Ali post!

- Check out this funny routine George Carlin did about the whole situation.