THE GREATEST

John Wharton

Better people than me will write better words than these about Muhammad Ali. We all know about Ali’s pugilistic achievements – he won the Olympic gold medal at the 1960 Rome games, three times heavyweight champion of the world and probably the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. When you think about boxing and its recognisable faces, one man stands higher than them all.

I don’t believe in heroising people. Humans are flawed and when we put others on a pedestal, we ignore their flaws, we ignore the deeper complexities that make them what they are. I don’t see the point in rehashing the story of his life. Ali was more than a series of facts and figures, he was more than his fistic achievements.

The man who was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in the winter of 1942 was a complex individual, at times deeply flawed. His membership of the Nation of Islam led to criticism from white America and also several leading black American figures, who saw the Nation of Islam as a separatist hate religion.

Ali was a conflicting and conflicted personality. A champion of black America, yet he would mock the darker features of old foe Joe Frazier, a resentment that Frazier would carry for many years. A man who was capable of great generosity, yet he deliberately punished opponents like Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell.

Ali was synonymous with the sport even though he eventually transcended boxing and the world of sport itself. In my eyes his greatest achievement wasn’t his Olympic gold, it wasn’t the fact he won the biggest prize in sport three times. For me, it was his refusal to be inducted into the US Army for the Vietnam war.

Ali initially tested for the military in 1962 and was categorised as 1-A but then in 1964, he was reclassified as 1-Y (fit for service only in times of national emergency) after two tests showed that his IQ was 78, well below the limit that the Army found acceptable. In 1966, the US Army changed its system and Ali was again reclassified as 1-A.

When notified that he would be inducted into the military, Ali declared that he would refuse induction and that he considered himself a conscientious objector. Famously he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” The statement articulated, for many people, a reason to oppose the war.

On 28th April 1967 Muhammad Ali was scheduled for induction into the military in Houston, Texas. Three times Ali refused to step forward. An officer warned him he was breaking the law and that his refusal could lead to five years in prison and a huge fine. Again, Ali refused to be inducted. As a result, Ali was arrested. The New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his license and stripped him of his world heavyweight title. Soon, other commissions and governing bodies followed suit.

At his trial on 20th June 1967, the jury found Ali guilty after just 21 minutes of deliberation. An appeal was launched, but the Court of Appeal upheld the original decision. Eventually, his case went to the US Supreme Court.

Ali was exiled for three and a half years and, from a boxing perspective, the real crime was that we were denied seeing The Greatest at his peak. We’ll never know just how good Ali could have been. The Louisville Lip made his stance knowing full well the impact it would have on his life and his career. He was aware that if he had joined the Army, his career wouldn’t have been affected and he probably would never have seen action. Still, he stood his ground and maintained his beliefs. Eventually, in June 1971, the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction.

After boxing, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Even now Parkinson’s is an illness that makes sufferers of the disease retreat from public life, but Ali refused to do that, he let people see him as he was. Parkinson’s never defeated Ali. He never allowed it to.

Muhammad Ali wasn’t just a boxer; he wasn’t just a sportsman. He was a defining figure in the decade that changed the world. He transcended boxing; he transcended sport. He became an icon, a legend and one of the most recognisable figures of the 20th Century.

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