The Controversy of Ali being Islamic and not Going to War

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Muhammed Ali, born Cassius Clay, was a great American boxing legend. He changed his religion to the Nation of Islam, and because of his religious beliefs, he did not want to fight in the Vietnam War. As a result of his decision, Muhammed Ali was sentenced to prison, suspended from boxing and stripped of his heavyweight titles. But, how would the American society view this bold move? To stand before the draft board and refuse, what others view as, your patriotic duty. Ali publicly voiced his opinion about the war and stood firm in his beliefs. He did not dodge the draft by fleeing to another country, he faced what was to come. He faced a country that favored the war at that time. He faced unemployment, unable to peruse his craft because he was suspended by the boxing commission. He had to surrender his passport so he could not pursue any boxing events out of the country. He was not able to provide for his family. His decision had huge consequences. With all that he faced, he stood firm in what he believed, holding tight to his faith. Once Ali was able to return to the ring, he reclaimed his title. Despite all his efforts to recover his titles and notoriety. The controversy behind Muhammed Ali’s refusal to go to war was bittersweet. His decision to opt out of The Vietnam War put a blemish on his career.

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. and Odessa Grady Clay were proud parents of the famous boxer. He was the eldest of two kids, his brother Rahman Ali, was born just 18 months after him on July 18, 1943. The Clay brothers boxed in the Amateur Boxing League in Louisville. While Cassius went on to attend the 1960 Olympic games, Rahman stayed behind.

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Cassius had once owned a red and white Schwinn bicycle which was stolen when he was 12, just only two days after he got it and it broke his heart. He reported the missing bike to a then Louisville police officer by the name of Joe Martin. Cassius swore to beat up the thief, but however officer Martin suggested a different path. He suggested that Cassius should start boxing. Given that the officer was a boxing coach on the side, he became young Clay’s coach. In about six weeks, Cassius won his first match by an undecided decision. By the time Clay was 18, he had already won two national Golden Gloves titles, two Amateur Athletic Union national titles with 100 wins and just over 8 losses under his name. After graduating high-school he then traveled to Rome, Italy, where he won the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympic Games. On October 29, 1960, Cassius entered the ring at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, experiencing his professional debut by winning in a six round decision (Salem Press,2001, p.29). The upcoming heavyweight intimidated his opponents with combinations of quick, powerful jabs and fast feet. His trash talk and self-promotion got him the nickname “Louisville Lip”.

After winning his first 19 fights, 15 of which were knockouts, Clay received his first title shot on February 24, 1964. He was to go up against reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Clay arrived in Miami Beach, Florida, being the runner up that people where starting to take notice of with the record of 7-1. Cassius insulted Liston before the fight. Guaranteeing he was going to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” ( as he called it, it was a knockout. When Liston didn’t answer to the bell at the beginning of the seventh round, Clay was crowned heavyweight champion of the world. In the ring, he yelled out, “I am the greatest!”.

During his time in Florida, Clay had been spotted with the supporter of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X (1925-1965). Rumors began to come that he was going to convert to the Nation of Islam. He approved that the rumors of his conversion were indeed true. On March 6, 1964, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), gave Clay the name of Muhammad Ali ( Cassius Clay had his name a shredded his old name and would now be known to the world as Muhammad Ali. Ali had saved his title as the heavyweight champion by beating Liston again in a rematch on May 25, 1965. He managed to protect his title eight more times after this.

The Vietnam War was underway, and the loss of American lives was devastating. Ali arrived for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Military, in Houston, Texas, on April 28, 1967. He expressed his religious views and Ali refused enlistment into the U.S. Army at the peak of the war in Vietnam. This refusal followed a direct testimony voiced by Ali 14 months earlier in which he states: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” ( Many people strongly judged Ali’s belief. It was a time in which most Americans in the United States still supported the war in Southeast Asia. There were exemptions from military service on religious stands. This was optional to qualifying conscientious protestors who were against the war in any shape, form or fashion. Ali was not qualified for such an exemption, because he admitted that he would be willing to partake in an Islamic holy war but yet not the one of his own country. At a time when draft letters were hitting the mail and America was losing sons too often in a strange land. This one American would fight in a holy war, yet he was not willing to fight for his country, as thousands before him had.

Ali was stripped of his championship. He was banned from fighting by every state athletic commission in the United States for three and a half years. In addition, he was criminally indicted. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of Draft Evasion. Basically, he was refusing induction into the U.S. armed forces. His punishment was to be sentenced to five years in prison with a ten-thousand dollar fine. The conviction was appealed, so he remained free. Meanwhile many thought he was draft dodging and his popularity declined drastically.

During the time he was banned, Ali went to different college campuses speaking out on the war. Surprisingly, support for Ali increased as the public grew unpopular of the war. Although he stayed free on bail, four years went by before his conviction was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court (

After 43 months of expulsion, Ali returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, and knocked out Jerry Quarry in the third round. When Ali appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court for the last time in 1971, liberal stalwart Justice William Brennan persuaded his colleagues to hear the case. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, helped Ali because he had been a common lawyer when Ali was prosecuted. That left eight justices, who on a first vote sided with the Justice Department in a 5-3 decision ( What made his rejection to war so significant was that Americans felt like they supported him in his career of boxing. Yet, he wouldn’t go to war in support of his country. Americans felt his refusal to accept the draft was simply disrespectful. He quickly became the most disliked person in the country, because of his firm stance on beliefs and religion. He felt as if it would be wrong for him to travel that far and kill people who hadn’t done anything to him. When Ali didn’t want to go to war, he left the impression with American’s that being famous can work in your favor. If you are famous, you are above the law.

On March 8, 1971, Ali got a chance to get his heavyweight title against the reigning champion, Joe Frazier, which will be known as “The Fight of The Century”. Frazier hit Ali with a left hook sending Ali to the mat in the final round. Ali got up off the ground, losing in an undecided decision, experiencing his first loss as a professional. After the tough loss, he won his next ten matches before being defeated by Ken Norton. Ali won the rematch 6 months later in an undecided decision and gained revenge in another undecided decision over Joe Frazier in a non-title match. This win gave 32-year-old Muhammed a title-chance against the 25-year-old George Foreman. The fight took place on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, becoming known as “The Rumble in The Jungle.” Ali used his “rope-a-dope” strategy, basically absorbing blows from Foreman while waiting for him to get tired. The strategy succeeded and Ali won in the 8th round knockout to regain the title token from him seven years earlier.

He retired from boxing in 1981 to focus on his religion and charities. Just three years into retirement, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The Parkinson’s Disease was a result of too many blows to the head, during his prominent career. Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, at the age of 74, due to the complications from the terrible disease.


  1. Editors, H. (2009, December 16). Muhammad Ali. Retrieved from
  2. Hauser, T. (2019, April 05). Muhammad Ali. Retrieved from
  3. Calamur, K. (2016, June 04). When Muhammad Ali Refused to Go to Vietnam. Retrieved from
  4. Marks, H. S. (2018). Muhammad Ali. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from,ip&db=ers&AN=90669690&site=eds-live&scope=site
  5. MUHAMMAD ALI (Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.) . (2001). Great Athletes (Salem Press), 29. Retrieved from,cookie&db=khh&AN=5361814&site=ehost-live
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The Controversy of Ali Being Islamic and Not Going to War. (2020, Jan 01). Retrieved from