How Muhammad Ali Risked His Boxing Career to Protest the Vietnam War

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Muhammad Ali Sonny Liston
Muhammad Ali stands over fallen Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw in Lewiston, Maine. May 25, 1965. (Courtesy of John Rooney/AP Images)

Muhammad Ali was, for a while, the most famous human in the world, and he's inspired dozens of books, movies and documentaries that chronicle his influence in boxing and in the culture at large.

PBS and Ken Burns have turned their lens on his life in "Muhammad Ali," a four-part documentary; it's co-directed by Burns' daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. The team previously made PBS' "Jackie Robinson" documentary, which aired in 2016.

"Muhammad Ali" will air on the network from Sept. 19-22, 2021, beginning at 9 p.m. ET Sunday night and will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on Oct. 19, 2021.

One of the fighter's most lasting legacies is the fallout from his refusal to be inducted in the Army after he was drafted in 1966. The film explores that decision, and we've got a long clip that tells the story of his resistance.

Ali had been classified as 1-Y (registrant qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency) in 1964 because of his dyslexia, but his draft status was reclassified as 1-A (fit for general military service) in 1966 when the Army lowered its standards to include anyone above the 15th percentile under its requirements.

Informed of his new draft status, the champ made his feelings clear. "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said.

Ali was scheduled to defend his championship against Zora Folley at Madison Square Garden in March 1967. While training for the fight, he received word that he'd been drafted and had to report for induction.

Ali's lawyers put off this induction by claiming that he no longer lived in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, because the boxer had moved to Houston, Texas, to train for his most recent fights. The draft board gave in but also demanded that Ali show up for induction in Houston on April 28, 1967.

Before he left Louisville (the place where he no longer lived) to travel to Houston for his appearance, Ali gave a press conference and made his position clear. "Why should me and other so-called Negroes go 10,000 miles away from here in America to drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people who've never bothered us?" he said. "I will say directly, no, I will not go 10,000 miles to help kill innocent people."

After undergoing his physical in Houston, Ali refused to step forward when his name was called during the induction ceremony. A Navy lieutenant explained the penalties for refusal: a $10,000 fine and up to five years in prison. Ali wouldn't budge.

Within hours, the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission pulled Ali's license to fight in the state and said his behavior was "detrimental to the interests of boxing." Almost every other boxing commission in the United States soon followed suit. Just 25 at the time, the fighter found himself banned from the sport at the physical peak of his abilities.

Muhammad Ali enjoying a spontaneous encounter with his fans in Detroit, MI. Circa 1977. (PBS Courtesy of Michael Gaffney)

In the documentary, veteran and journalist Salim Muwakkil reflects on his reaction to Ali's decision. "At the time, I was in the service. One would think that I would think of him as a traitor or someone who didn't want to do what I'm doing, but I was all for it. And I found that many of the Black servicemen were for it as well. They appreciated him speaking up because, at the time, there was a lot of dissent among African-American servicemen in the Vietnam era. A lot of Black men were being killed, and they were thinking of themselves as cannon fodder. Some of the most radical figures I've ever met were in the ranks of the Air Force and the Army. We appreciated him speaking out and saying things like that."

In May 1967, the boxer met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Louisville during Kentucky Derby Week. While King disagreed with Ali's black separatist politics, he came strongly on the side of draft resistance. "My views on the draft are very clear," King announced with the fighter at his side. "I'm against it. I think the sooner our country does away with the draft, the better it will be for everybody."

That statement may seem mild 54 years later, but the reaction was incendiary when a leader like King spoke out this way in 1967. Criticizing U.S. policy in Southeast Asia was still a risky move, especially for a Black leader like MLK.

The Army knew, the media knew and Ali knew that if he'd been inducted into the service, there was zero chance of the brass putting such a high-profile young man in harm's way. He would've been asked to travel around the world and visit bases as a morale booster, shaking hands and posing for pictures.

Of course, the media was full of accusations that Ali wouldn't serve because he was scared. A huge percentage of mainstream media journalists had been uncomfortable since the boxer had converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Now, the kid was claiming that those religious beliefs prevented him from joining the military.

Ali paid a huge price for his principles. While he never served a prison sentence, he was unable to ply his trade for more than three years while his case worked its way through the courts. The Supreme Court eventually ruled 8-0 in Ali's favor in June 1971, mostly because the Draft Board had failed to cite a reason for denying the boxer's conscientious status.

He'd managed a return to the ring in October 1970 when the City of Atlanta led the way and granted Ali a boxing license. The rest of the athletic world followed suit, and Ali was back at center stage in New York City for his March 1971 "Fight of the Century" against heavyweight champ Joe Frazier. He lost that fight but went on to dominate the sport for the next decade.

Still, he'd lost millions of dollars in income and an opportunity to box during his prime in defense of a principle. His decision to refuse the draft was the first big crack in domestic support for the Vietnam War, and his experience played a big part in convincing politicians and voters that maybe the country would be better off with an all-volunteer force.

How Muhammad Ali went from dangerous radical to the beloved figure who lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is a story worth watching, and this new documentary offers an excellent overview of his life.

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