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Citizen of the world

Vale Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) - Citizen of the world

Boxing crowd

ON 161 / Item 198

Nicknamed "The Greatest", African-American boxer Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century, it was Ali's actions as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War that made him an icon for the wider counter-culture generation.

Nobody at Ali's level of fame had ever attempted to evade the draft, and his opposition to the war led him to spend the next four years of his career inside a courtroom, battling for his beliefs, rather than in the ring. This act of social activism was one that would strip the boxer of his best fighting years, cost him millions of dollars, and forever alter the public’s perception of him.  

Cassius Clay had turned professional at the age of 18, after winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, where he narrowly defeated Australia’s Tony Madigan in a closely fought semi-final. His February 1964 world heavyweight title fight in Miami, Florida, was the most important bout of his boxing career, and saw him become, at age 22, the youngest boxer to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion. It was also the point at which he announced his conversion to Islam, which signalled his transitioned from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

Ali had registered for conscription in the United States military on his 18th birthday, when he was listed as 1-A. In 1964, following an IQ test, Ali was reclassified as Class 1-Y (fit for service only in times of national emergency). Several years later, when served with a draft notification in March 1966, Ali publicly declared his refusal to serve in the US army as he considered himself to be a conscientious objector. Subsequently  denied a passport and stripped of his boxing licenses, the boxer was in negotiations to defend his title against Oscar Bonvena in Tokyo in  May 1967,  before visiting Australia for an exhibition bout at the Sydney Stadium.

Cassius clay

ON 161 / Item 198

On 28 April 1967, Ali was arrested for draft evasion.  News of the arrest swept around the world, leading protesters in Sydney to demonstrate outside the Stadium, at Rushcutter’s Bay, in support of the boxer’s anti-Vietnam War stance.

Following his 20 June 1967 conviction, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison with a $10,000 fine and stripped of his boxing titles. Though he remained free while the verdict was being appealed, Ali was sidelined at the peak of his professional athletic performance. Two months later, only 27% of Americans approved of the war – the lowest point during President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration.

By 1968, with his court case under appeal but his boxing career effectively over, Ali found himself in grave financial debt. To earn money in lieu of the millions he could've been making boxing, he began visiting college campuses where he gave hundreds of speeches to young audiences that fuelled the vehement anti-war movement and solidified his status as a peace-maker and counter-culture icon.

In June 1971, after years of appeals, the Supreme Court finally overturned Ali's conviction by a unanimous 8–0 decision. By then, his view of the war had become America's view of the war and people were ready to see their hero back in the ring. 

In 1981, Ali retired from boxing. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome in 1984, a disease that sometimes results from head trauma from activities such as boxing. At the time of his death, on 3 June 2016, Muhammad Ali was regarded by boxing commentators and historians as one of the greatest boxers of all time but also revered for his status as a popular culture icon.