The Greatest Is Gone

An era ends as an aging Ali yields his crown

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There was a war on. Every night, television sets in the nation's living rooms showed—in color—the horror of the fighting in Viet Nam. Ali refused to do his bit. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said, and changed his life forever. When the Army tried to draft Ali, he appealed, claiming that, as a Black Muslim, he was a conscientious objector: Ali managed to squeeze in a few fights, mostly in Europe, before the date he was supposed to take the fateful step forward to induction. Ironically, the man who read so haltingly that he was once declared below Army standards was also invited to lecture on campuses by students who were sitting out the war behind a book. Ali became the symbol of opposition to the war at a time when Lyndon Johnson still was in office and, supposedly, there was light at the end of the tunnel. He was also bitterly attacked in the press for his close association with Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslim leader. The Chicago Tribune ran eleven anti-Ali draft stories in a single issue.

Ali and his entourage claim that the Government secretly sought to strike a deal—offering, if he would go quietly into uniform, to allow him to defend his title regularly and put on boxing exhibitions. A similar arrangement had been worked out for Joe Louis during World War II. The Pentagon last week denied that any such arrangement was ever suggested to Ali.

By April 1967, Ali had exhausted all of his appeals. At the Houston Induction Center, he refused orders to step forward to join the Army. Within minutes the New York State Athletic Commission rescinded his boxing license; it took the World Boxing Association four hours to do its patriotic duty and take away his title. The State Department confiscated his passport so that he could not travel to nations willing to sanction his fighting. For his stand, Ali was convicted of draft evasion and given a five-year prison sentence. He started the lengthy process of appeal, and discovered that he could no longer get fights in the U.S. Conrad recalls the banishment: "I canvassed 27 states trying to get him a license to fight. I even tried to set up a fight in a bullring across the border from San Diego, and they wouldn't let him leave the country. Overnight he became a 'nigger' again. He threw his life away on one toss of the dice for something he believed in. Not many folks do that."

For three and one-half years, Ali was not allowed to earn a purse at the only work he knew. The banishment cost him his fighting prime. Finally, late in 1970, he began to get some bouts: he tuned up by beating Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena and then challenged Joe Frazier for the title on March 8, 1971. He lost, but three months later scored a bigger victory in another arena. On June 28, 1971, his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, which ruled 8 to 0 that the draft board had improperly denied Ali's claim for exemption on grounds that he was a conscientious objector. Ali returned to the frustrating trail of a contender: a broken jaw at the hands of Ken Norton, a rematch triumph over Frazier, newly dethroned by George Foreman.

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