The Greatest Boxer: Muhammad Ali

By Mai Todoroki

ali“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”  The famous boxer, Muhammad Ali, said this in 1966 to show his opposition to the Vietnam War. Many people probably know the boxer’s name, but most of them do not know what he did. He became a Golden Glove champion in 1959 and won a gold medal at Olympics in the following year. He was a heavyweight champion, but his boxing career had some controversies. He was a member of the Nation of Islam, and in 1967, he had been sentenced to prison due to his disregard for the U.S government’s order to join up to fight in Vietnam. Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War had a major impact on his boxing career and on American attitudes towards the war.

Ali had a successful career as a boxer. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. In his childhood, he was raised in the segregated south. He found his talent for boxing and started boxing when he was twelve years old.  His original name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. but he changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 because of the influence of the Nation of Islam. According to the Nation of Islam, god’s messenger, Elijah Muhammad, gave Cassius the name. He won his first professional fight in 1960 and received a gold medal at the Rome Olympics and was really proud of it.  In 1966, he refused to serve the United States Army in the Vietnam War. As a result, he was sentenced to prison for five years and banned from fighting in America. In 1970, he was allowed to fight and came back to the ring. He introduced a new strategy, “rope a dope,” a way of absorbing punches on the ropes. He announced that he suffered from Parkinson in 1980 and retired. In 2001, his biographical film was made and Will Smith played Ali. An Academy Award was given to the movie. He lives with his fourth wife on a small farm. Surprisingly, his daughter Laila Ali became a boxer in 1999.

Ali’s action against the Vietnam War had negative and positive effects on his boxing career. In 1966, he was to be drafted into the army, but he refused due to the influence of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a Muslim group whose aim was to raise status of non-white people. They referred to white people as “devils” and they wanted to make their own nation to be free from white people. In response to the Vietnam War, Ali said, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” He knew that there were no reasons to fight with the Vietnam people. However, his action against the war meant defiance of the U.S government. He was given a chance to apologize and to take back what he said, but he refused. As a result, he was sentenced to five years in prison in 1967 and fined $10,000.  He was not allowed to box for three and half years. He was a heavyweight champion before going jail, but while he was in prison, the title was taken by Joe Frazier.  Ali came back to the ring in 1970 and defeated Jerry Quarry.  However, his action positively affected his image. Because of his brave actions, the African American people admired Ali as their hero. His protest had negative influences, but as feelings about the war changed it also had positive influence on his image.

His action against the Vietnam War had an impact on American attitudes towards the war. Another reason why he opposed the war was due to its relationship to racial discrimination. Actually, in 1964, African American people were segregated and they had a lower status in society. The military was desegregated earlier than other institutions, so black people were attracted to the army. However, African American people had to work in more dangerous areas compared with white soldiers. As a result, 25% of black soldiers were killed in Vietnam between 1956 and 1966.  Ali wanted to protect his friends and other African Americans, so he opposed the war. His action received national attention because, while there was growing opposition, there were not so many individuals opposed to the war. The American government did not want other young people to take the same action as Ali, so it required him to be eligible for the draft for four more years.  After his actions against the war, more and more black soldiers, college students and young people opposed the war and joined the anti-war movement. By 1974, American opposition to the war in Vietnam had grown. In a 1970 interview, Ali said “I was determined to be one nigger that the white man didn’t get.” This quote shows his realization of the connection between the war and the oppression of black people.  His opposition to the war encouraged the improvement of black people’s status. He opposed the war because of racial discrimination and his action changed American attitudes towards the war.

In conclusion, Muhammad Ali opposed the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs and racial discrimination. His actions had a great influence on his boxing career and on American attitudes towards the war. Some people admired his actions, but others criticized it at that time. However, his brave actions have had an influence on future generations of African Americans and the American people in general.


Further Reading

Dave Zirin. What’s My Name, Fool?. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005.

Mai Todoroki is a second-year student in the Dept. of British and American Cultural Studies.