Muhammad Ali: Did his Vietnam Comments Doom Boxing to Obscurity?
By Tewodore: In today’s world of patriotism ad nauseum. Where is seems no athlete is willing to stand out or against the incredible power of the self proclaimed greatest nation on the planet. There once was a man, a legend- he too claimed to be the greatest albeit the greatest boxer of all time. Somehow in the midst of his career this self proclaimed greatest boxer ran afoul of the self proclaimed greatest nation. The fireworks that ensued would captivate a nation, and bare its deep divisions for the world to see. Unbelievably it would be the boxer who would claim victory in the encounter but the nation would not be denied its vengeance. It’s embarrassment was self evident its retribution would gut a once great sport, and kill many federal funded programs for boxers around the nation. This is the story of Muhammad Ali vs The United States Government and the repercussions that would reverberate through boxing for generations to come.
From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. It was the sixties African Americans were growing more and more impatient with the lethargic implementation of truths thought to be universally self evident that all men were created equal. They had become disenchanted with the old leadership whose policies of understanding and patience no longer struck a chord with the youthful exuberance of the new African Americans coming into their own in the modern era. They chafed under the laws of Jim Crow for far too long. They could see the futility of the practices of the old leaders so they were all ears when a new message swept the landscape. This message was one of “Black empowerment” Black excellence” It was a message for them by them that made them feel proud of who they were. It was not a message of appeasement it was not a message of later. It was a message of now. Caught in this new wave was the young Cassius Clay.
Prior to his fight with Sonny Liston, Cassius was contemplating a switch in religions. No doubt he was caught in a trance by the captivating message of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and his enigmatic spokesman The Fiery Voice of the new nation Malcolm X. Before Cassius would become Muhammad Ali a rift had appeared between Malcolm and Mr. Muhammad but the indelible mark was already left on the impressionable young mind of one Cassius Clay. Who after the Sonny Liston fight would announce to the world his new name of Muhammad Ali.
The palpable consternation of European Americans could be felt everywhere. What’s this new religion that openly calls “Whites” devils and list the innumerable wrongs committed by their ancestors as well as the modern day wrongs for the world to see. How could a person change his name? The name that his parents had given him. A good name, what’s wrong with the “Blacks” . What’s wrong with our youth? Was the question on the minds of many a elder African American. The Nation proceeded to give a withering sermon on the evils committed against their people, as well as the reason why the last names given to them in America held no weight. Its was into this cauldron that Muhammad Ali was born.
The commencement of the Vietnam war. There was a unstated law of America that no matter how you felt about the country no matter our differences no one especially a acknowledged star was able to make disparaging remarks about America. Especially the least amongst all Americans “The Blacks”. Muhammad Ali an acknowledged star broke this unspoken rule. With his draft status changed unbeknownst to him. Without a new test as to whether he was intellectually any better off than the first time he took the test, the government changed Ali’s draft status. On that day with cameras in tow a reporter asked Ali a fateful question what he thought of the Vietnam war. His answer would leave America, and the world agasp. His comment “No Vietcong Ever Called me N…er!” Will echo for eternity. He would then go on in his own way to enumerate all the reasons why he would not fight abroad against people he did not know when his real battles and enemies were right at home. It would spark a battle that would culminate with Ali refusing to be drafted into the military and being convicted of draft dodging.
The world was watching, the reputation of the United States faced a challenge unlike any other it had faced before. It was not a military challenge but a Moral Challenge. How could a nation that claimed to be the greatest amongst all nations. The steward of freedom and bravery jail a person, a superstar boxer nonetheless for his disagreement with the war America was waging. Especially when his argument made so much sense. With reluctance the Supreme Court had no choice but to overturn the sentence in favor of Ali handing him the greatest victory of his storied career. He was reinstated as a professional boxer and allowed to continue his craft going forward and losing to one Joe Frazier in a fight of the century, But the biggest battle of Ali’s career was already behind him.
The aftermath. The halls of congress must have been busy with politicians and intelligence agents. Tax law writers and jurist who were embarrassed that America’s moral superiority had been questioned, and lampooned for the world to see. The backlash would relegate boxing to just a niche sport. Although after the verdict boxing would enjoy fame and fortune for quite awhile the powers that be would prove very patient in their pursuit of retribution. As soon as the eye of the mainstream viewers turned elsewhere the rug was pulled out from under boxing. High School and college boxing programs disappeared, federal funding evaporated. Neighborhood gyms closed up and shuttered their doors for good. A unspoken message was sent out to future boxers and athletes in general. Stay out of politics if you know what’s good for you and your sport.
To date boxing has never fully recovered from the severe beating the government gave it. The closure of the gyms choked off the talent that was so dearly needed to keep the sport afloat and relevant. With the gyms closed the talent went elsewhere. Football, basketball, and baseball all prospered as a result of boxing’s tussle with the government. It was all precipitated by one Man. Muhammad Ali. The Only Boxer to go toe to toe with the Government and score a Unanimous Decision