Muhammad Ali is probably the best boxer of all time. Not only was he skillful, but he was a charismatic and entertaining figure who wasn’t afraid to trash talk his opponents. But, of all the fights that he’s had in his career, his biggest fight, even bigger than his ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ was his fight against the U.S. government.
Muhammad Ali before the big fight
It was the ’60s, and Ali, who had recently changed his name from Cassius Clay, was well on his way to boxing greatness. He was in his early 20s, and he had just knocked out Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, two well-respected names in boxing. Ali racked up a few more wins before, in 1967, he had the toughest fight of his life.
Ali had an undefeated record of 29-0 before this big fight against the U.S. government, and it would be a fight that he’d have for years to come. With the Vietnam War ramping up, the government started drafting men into the military.
As the Washington Post said, Ali, despite being a conscientious objector, was called up to be inducted into the U.S. Army. He refused, saying that it was against his religion and his beliefs as a Muslim.
On top of that, as he said a few years earlier, he had always been opposed to the war. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said.
Muhammad Ali vs. the United States
Ali didn’t have bone spurs, so the courts at the time thought that he was dodging the draft. After requesting a speedy trial, according to the Washington Post, a Houston judge and jury sentenced him to five years in prison as well as a $10,000 fine. Ali of course, was rich enough to afford lawyers, and he began a legal fight against the U.S. government.
In the meanwhile, he was stripped of his titles and his boxing license, which meant that he couldn’t fight professionally in the U.S. Joe Frazier climbed the ranks and became the champion, while Ali kept fighting for his right to object to fighting a war.
Ali spoke to crowds as well as with civil rights leaders during this time away from boxing. Martin Luther King sided with him, saying that, “I think he is absolutely sincere. I would strongly endorse his actions on the basis of conscience.”
His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and this was a back-and-forth bout. The court was going to rule against him and sentence him to prison, but then Justice John Harlan was convinced by his clerk to do more research into Ali.
Harlan was then convinced that Ali was sincere about his objections, and he managed to convince the rest of the Justices to agree with him. In the end, they ruled unanimously that Ali was right.
What could’ve happened if he went to prison
Obviously, it’s tough to know what could happen if this or that had happened or not. During this four year fight, Muhammad Ali lost many of his best years in the ring. Maybe Ali could’ve beaten more people, maybe not.
But, one thing is certain. If the Supreme Court was not convinced in the end that Ali was in the right, then the Justices would’ve sentenced him to serve those five years in prison. Ali’s boxing career wouldn’t resume until he was in his 30s, and he’d be disgraced for being a draft dodger.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen and now, he’s known as ‘The Greatest’ for good reason.