A three-time world champion boxer, global superstar, and sporting legend, Muhammad Ali floated like a butterfly and throughout life stung like a bee.

Known for his raw talent, unique personality, and often controversial beliefs, ‘The Greatest’ rose to fame beating the likes of Henry Cooper, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman and eventually even Uncle Sam!

Representing the USA and winning gold at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome as a light-heavyweight, Muhammad Ali turned professional shortly after his triumph on the world stage. Competing as a heavyweight between 1960 and 1981, those who brush up on their history will know that Ali was not always available to box during a monumental 21 years of his life.

Muhammad Ali famously missed out on his prime as an athlete and was denied the right to box between 1967 and 1970. Sentenced by the American government to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and stripped of his titles and passport, why was the most popular 25-year-old on the planet treated like a criminal by the authorities?


No, I won’t go!

On 8th March 1965, President John F Kennedy’s American soldiers entered Vietnam and began their battle with the communist North Vietnamese. Kennedy did not want communism spreading and so deployed troops to South East Asia with the aim of putting a stop to it. As commitments grew larger and more American men were needed to step up and fight, a selective service draft lottery system was introduced to conscript those eligible for war.

A proud Muslim man with peaceful beliefs (having even changed his birth ‘slave name’ from Cassius Clay), Ali was drafted into the US Army in 1967. Was he going to go to Vietnam? Absolutely not!

The Kentucky-born brawler had actually registered for conscription into the military on his 18th birthday. Originally listed as a 1-A prospect in 1962 (available for unrestricted military service), Ali was re-classified as a Class 1-Y in 1964 (fit for service only in times of national emergency) – this due to failing the Armed Forces qualifying test with dyslexia.

When in 1966 the army lowered its standards to allow individuals like Ali back into the A1 category, it resulted in those previously exempt from ‘Nam’ conscription being drafted. Notified of the change, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector and declared that he would refuse to serve his country if called upon.

On religious grounds, ‘The GOAT’ stated: “War is against the teachings of the Qur’an.”

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong, but why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home? To drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”

For almost a year prior to his scheduled induction into the army, Ali used his platform to fight back against a war that was ultimately never won. As a black icon and a believer in equality, Ali took the view that Vietnam was about more than just the prevention of the spread of communism.

“No, I’m not going to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters,” Ali once famously exclaimed.

The Greatest found guilty

When the time finally came to appear in Texas for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces, Ali refused three times to step forward when his name was called. On 28th April 1967, Ali was arrested for his protest, stripped of his titles, and suspended by the New York State Commission from boxing.

The effect and influence that Ali’s decision had on black people was a dangerous step in the wrong direction for those pro-Vietnam. Even those most prominent in the black community were keen to check whether Ali was opposing war for the right reasons. Making history a week later, a group of high-profile African American athletes assembled at the ‘Negro Industrial Economic Union’ in Cleveland for a ‘Muhammad Ali Summit’. The meeting was held to determine whether Ali was to be supported in his beliefs or not. Organized by NFL legend Jim Brown, the group was eventually satisfied that Ali was legitimate in fighting the government and leaned him their full support.

Ali was placed on trial in a case so iconic that it was reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. On 20th June 1967, the court originally found ‘The People’s Champion’ guilty of violating the Selective Service laws by refusing to be drafted. After just 21 minutes of deliberation, Ali was quickly handed his sentence. The champion requested a brief inquest.

Praised by the likes of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, but frowned upon by millions, Ali instantly became a divisive character. Instead of fleeing to Canada like most conscientious objectors, ‘The Greatest’ stood up for his beliefs. As both a way of paying off his $10,000 debt and educating young Americans, the once Olympic hero toured universities around the country, sharing his views on Vietnam and making ends meet whilst doing so. Ali’s most popular talk was his ‘Black is Best’ speech.

Ali had his prime years taken away from him and yet still left behind a legacy like no other.

“One thing must be taken into account when talking about Ali – he was robbed of his best years, his prime years.” Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee.


1971 – The year of the unanimous decision

On 28th June 1971, the boxing gods shone down on Ali and his supporters. The Supreme US Court in ‘Clay v. United States’ overturned the original conviction with a unanimous 8–0 decision in favor of the athlete. Having spent four years in an exhausting legal battle (almost ending up in prison), Ali was victorious. All because the appeal board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption.

“I thank Allah and I thank the Supreme Court for recognizing the sincerity of the religious teachings that I’ve accepted,” said Ali, who passed away aged 74 in 2016.

Upon returning to normality, the champion was allowed to resume his career and throw himself back in at the deep end. Ali hoped to stop an unbeaten Joe Frazier just as he did with Cooper and Liston years earlier. A promising start to a fresh chapter that followed a turbulent time for Ali.

Dubbed ‘The Fight of The Century’, the most famous 29-year-old on the planet was beaten by a unanimous decision in favor of Frazier in the 1971 match-up.

Gaining revenge on Frazier, Ali went on to beat his arch-rival in 1974 and again, as the reigning two-time world champion, in 1975 – ‘The Greatest’ having knocked out George Foreman a year earlier in ‘The Rumble in the Jungle.’

Ali on Vietnam – Quotes

“I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

“I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.”

“In the end I am confident that justice will come my way for the truth must eventually prevail.”

“I am not allowed to work in America and I’m not allowed to leave America,”

“The draft is about white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country that they stole from the red people.”

In total, it is estimated that over one million soldiers (from both sides) died in the Vietnam War. This article is dedicated to both Muhammad Ali and the victims of the conflict in Vietnam.


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