Boxing

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Victory Came When He Didn’t Fight

The greatest act of his life didn’t involve fighting but rather refusing to fight.

His sincere pacifism ultimately matters more than his ferocity and brilliance in the ring.

Muhammad Ali was brutal in the ring. It’s painful to watch his early matches with Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, and Ernie Terrell, which seem not at all like contests of equals but exercises in punishment and retribution verging on torture. Ali regarded these foes as not his boxing rivals so much as traitors to the cause of ᑲlα𝘤k freedom.

Terrell, his former sparring partner, snidely kept referring to Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay, in the buildup to their 1967 fight, an affront to the champion who had shed what he saw as a slave name for one that affirmed his identity as a black Muslim. “What’s my name, Uncle Tom?” Ali kept yelling as he pummelled Terrell. “What’s my name?” Even as Terrell buckled, Ali kept going after him with unforgiving cruelty.

The great paradox of Ali is that this man whose livelihood was violence, who was so relentless and unpitying in the ring, was a man of peace. The greatest act of his life didn’t involve fighting but rather refusing to fight. It was Ali’s decision in 1966—taken at great personal cost and risk—to defy orders to join the military during the Vietnam War that made him one of the greatest American heroes.

Ali’s critics called him a draft dodger, an accusation still flung around by the right-wing press and by conservative politicians. The real draft dodgers of the era were those who supported the Vietnam War but benefitted from the loopholes of the system to avoid service, chickenhawks like Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. Ali’s relationship with the draft was different.

The 20 best moments that made Muhammad Ali The Greatest | Muhammad Ali |  The Guardian

The greatest act of his life didn’t involve fighting but rather refusing to fight.

In truth, if Ali had wanted an easy life, he would’ve allowed himself to be drafted. There was no way the military would have sent the heavyweight champion of the world into combat to be maimed or killed. As the documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013) makes clear, Ali’s managers had been preparing a sweetheart deal with the military so that his service would be only symbolic. Like Joe Louis in the Second World War, Ali could’ve had an easy time in the Army, fighting charity matches and raising morale.

Ali chose not to because he was sincerely opposed to the Vietnam War—which he rightly saw as an imperialist adventure—and indeed to all war. The sincerity of his pacifism was affirmed by the Supreme Court in an 8-0 decision. (The ninth justice, Thurgood Marshall, recused himself because he had belonged to the NAACP, which supported Ali in the case. Marshall would almost certainly have agreed with the other eight justices.) More importantly it was affirmed by Ali’s own actions, by the fact that he risked a jαil sᥱntᥱn𝘤ᥱ of five years and lost millions of dollars and three-and-a-half of his prime years as a champion boxer. Writing in The Nation, Dave Zirin rightly sees Ali as an essential figure who brought together the black liberation movement with the anti-war movement, forging a path followed by Martin Luther King, Jr. who came out against the Vietnam War a year after Ali.

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