Muhammad Ali was in for the fight of his life when he was convicted for evading the draft.
It took 18 minutes for Muhammad Ali to ”shock the world” by winning the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston. It took 20 minutes for a jury to turn the champ into a convicted felon, when on June 20, 1967, the boxer was found guilty of draft evasion.
No entertainer — and no athlete was ever more entertaining than Ali — as famous as ”The Greatest” had ever risked so much so publicly in standing up for his beliefs. The verdict had the potential to cost the fighter not only his freedom as well as millions of dollars, but also the legacy of an athlete in his prime. ”[He] missed what, theoretically, would have been the best years of his boxing career,” says sportscaster Dick Schaap.
Ali’s Army odyssey began on Feb. 17, 1966, when the former Cassius Clay Jr.’s draft status was reclassified from exempt (for failing an aptitude test) to 1-A. While Ali requested exemption as a conscientious objector, citing his role as a minister in the Nation of Islam, his appeals were denied, and the fighter was ordered to report to Houston for induction on April 28, 1967.
The champ’s position on the war was famously clear: ”Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” So, when Ali showed up for induction, he refused to step forward when his name was called. As a result, the heavyweight champion of the world was immediately stripped of his license and his title, and was later charged under the Universal Military Training and Service Act, setting the stage for a trial that began on June 19. After two days of deliberations, the all-white jury needed less than half an hour to deliver its guilty verdict. Judge Joe Ingraham followed by sentencing Ali to maximum penalties of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Free on appeal, yet not allowed to earn a living in the ring, Ali made ends meet by embarking on a speaking tour of college campuses. It would be three and a half years before he got permission to fight again, scoring a TKO over Jerry Quarry on Oct. 26, 1970 (and eventually regaining his crown from George Foreman in the ”Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire). His battle with the government would last even longer, with the conviction finally overturned in a unanimous vote by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1971.
In the coming years, the social and political climate would shift in such a manner that Ali is now lauded for his strength of conviction. It is just the sort of turnaround that he had counted on back in 1967. ”I want to know what is right, what’ll look good in history…,” Ali said just before his refusal to step forward in Houston. ”All I want is justice. Will I have to get that from history?” Consider it yours, champ.