- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

“I’ll try to live better, that’s all. I have been living right and clean, and I’ll try to continue to do good.”

Muhammad Ali,

June 28, 1971

The former heavyweight champion of the world heard the news as he was leaving a store on Chicago’s South Side after buying an orange.

“The fellow who owns the store ran out of the store and grabbed me while I was getting into my car,” the boxer told newsmen later in the day. “He hugged me and said, ‘I just heard the news on the radio — you’re free! You’re free!’”

Thirty-four years ago tomorrow, Muhammad Ali indeed was free — and for good. Saying his “beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them,” the court had overturned the government’s 1967 conviction of Ali, who had been sentenced to five years in prison for refusing induction into the Army as a conscientious objector. The court’s ruling was by unanimous decision, words familiar to boxing fans, with Justice Thurgood Marshall abstaining because he had been solicitor general for the Justice Department while it was prosecuting Ali.

In its ruling, the Court held that a conscientious objector must be against war in any form, must show his objection is based on religious training and must show it is sincere. It said the Justice Department “was simply wrong as a matter of law in advising that the petitioner’s beliefs were not religiously based and were not sincerely held.”

Asked how he would celebrate his legal victory, Ali replied, “I’ve done my celebrating already. I said a prayer to Allah.” Then he left to resume training for a fight with Jimmy Ellis, a former sparring partner, the following month in Houston.

As soon as the news reached the public, Ali was cheered or cussed anew throughout the nation as a hero or traitor, according to each person’s lights.

Around the world, however, untold thousands celebrated. Many were black, but race was unimportant here. Rejoicing just as heartily were others who believed the United States’ involvement in the constantly escalating war in Vietnam was unwise and unjust.

Love him or hate him — and almost nobody was neutral — Ali had stood up for what he believed regardless of personal cost. The battle, his toughest ever, had started more than four years earlier when his number came up at Selective Service.

In the tense mid-1960s, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali was a controversial figure. Childish poetry and braggadocio had marked his ascent to the heavyweight title, won in February 1964 when the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston refused to come out for the seventh round of their bout in Miami Beach. The following day, “Clay” announced he was changing his name and converting to the Nation of Islam.

Fifteen months later, he knocked out Liston in the first round at Lewiston, Maine, with a “phantom punch” that looked more like a slap, and cries of “fix” rent the air. Later when Ali showed unusual cruelty while beating up clean-cut former champion Floyd Patterson, whom he deemed an “Uncle Tom,” many fans turned away.

Drafted for the Army in 1967, Ali went into a figurative rope-and-dope. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said famously if ungrammatically. “No Viet Cong ever called me [the ‘n’ word].”

On April 28, protesters repeatedly shouted, “Draft beer, not Ali,” as they gathered outside the U.S. Veterans Administrative Office in Houston, where the boxer was scheduled to report for induction.

Inside the building, a lieutenant ordered the most famous of 46 draftees to step forward, barking, “Cassius Clay — Army!”

Ali didn’t move.

“Clay — Army!” the officer said again.

Ali stood still.

Another officer faced Ali and explained the penalty for refusing induction: five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Told he would have to state his objection in writing, Ali quickly scribbled, “I refuse to be inducted … because I claim to be exempt as a minister of the religion of Islam.”

Soon after, Ali was stripped of his title, sentenced to prison and fined. Appeals by his attorneys kept him out of a cell, but he remained idle in the ring for what would have been 3 prime years of his career — ages 25 to 28. Finally, New York State granted him a license to fight, and he knocked out veteran trial horse Jerry Quarry on Oct.26, 1970.

Then came the first of three epic fights against champion Joe Frazier, which Ali lost by decision on March8, 1971 — his first defeat in 32 bouts. He fought on for another 10 years — most notably against Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton — trying to make up for lost time and taking countless punches to the head that eventually left him with Parkinson’s syndrome. After losses to Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, Ali retired in December 1981 at age 39.

As his fighting skills declined, Ali remained a hero to millions because of the same courage he had shown that day long ago in Houston. After his retirement, he continued to be venerated as the Parkinson’s slowed his speech and movements. Wherever he went, he was hailed as “Champ” or simply “Ali.” Today he arguably remains the world’s most recognizable figure inside or outside of sports.

In 1996, he appeared seemingly out of nowhere as the unannounced torch bearer who ignited the Olympic cauldron to begin the Atlanta Games — and his slow progress made millions weep.

Bryant Gumbel described the occasion perfectly in ESPN Classic’s “Sports Century” series: “If you had told somebody in 1968 that Muhammad Ali [today] would be the most beloved individual on Earth and the mere sight of him holding an Olympic torch would bring people to tears, you’d have won a lot of bets.”

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