Muhammad Ali’s Fight for the Right to Fight

By Adam J. Pollack on June 5, 2016
Muhammad Ali’s Fight for the Right to Fight
Denying Ali a license appeared intentional, arbitrary, and unreasonable discrimination.

On April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali reported for but declined to submit to induction into the Armed Forces of the United States…

On March 22, 1967, Muhammad Ali defended his world heavyweight boxing championship for the ninth time, knocking out Zora Folley in the seventh round. This would be Ali’s last bout for over three and a half years.

On April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali reported for but declined to submit to induction into the Armed Forces of the United States on the grounds of his religious beliefs as a minister of the Islamic Religion.

That same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended Muhammad Ali’s boxing license because of his refusal to submit to induction. The World Boxing Association (W.B.A.) immediately stripped Ali of his title. It soon became clear that no state would allow Ali to box.

On June 20, 1967, Ali’s federal criminal jury trial resulted in his conviction for knowingly and willfully refusing to submit to induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, a felony. Although he had no prior criminal record or charges, the judge sentenced Ali to five years imprisonment and a fine of $10,000. Imprisonment was delayed pending the result of Ali’s appeals.

On September 22, 1969, Ali applied to the New York State Athletic Commission for renewal of his expired license to box in New York. On October 14, 1969, the Commission unanimously denied his application because his “refusal to enter the service and felony conviction in violation of Federal law is regarded by this Commission to be detrimental to the best interests of boxing, or to the public interest, convenience or necessity.” Following the Commission’s decision, Ali brought an action for a preliminary injunction restraining the Commission from denying him a license to box in the State of New York.

The legal battle was important, because it was clear that no other state would allow Ali to box, for the same reasons. He could not leave the country to box, because his passport had been seized as a condition of his release on $5,000 bond pending his appeal.

On September 14, 1970, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Ali’s motion for a preliminary injunction restraining the New York State Athletic Commission from refusing to grant him a boxing license. Ali’s Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim was based in part on his charge that the Commission’s action was arbitrary and capricious in that Ali’s conviction for draft evasion had no rational relationship to the regulated activity of boxing and therefore was irrelevant to the proper exercise of the Commission’s functions. The Court agreed.

Ali also alleged that the Commission discriminated against him in violation of his rights under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires the government to treat similarly situated persons similarly, without discrimination. The Court also agreed.

In support of his equal protection claim, Ali demonstrated numerous other occasions in which professional boxers who had been convicted of crimes had been licensed despite their records. For example, Joey Giardello had been convicted of assault. Rocco Barbella, also known as Rocky Graziano, twice had been convicted of petty larceny, and had been court martialed while serving in the United States Army and convicted of being absent without leave and disobeying orders. Graziano was sentenced to one year hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. Sonny Liston had been convicted of armed robbery and assault with intent to kill. Unlike Ali, these boxers had been granted licenses to box.

The Commission’s records revealed at least 244 instances in recent years in which it granted, renewed, or reinstated boxing licenses to applicants who had been convicted of one or more felonies, misdemeanors or military offenses. Some 94 felons licensed included persons convicted of activities such as second degree murder, burglary, armed robbery, extortion, grand larceny, rape, sodomy, aggravated assault and battery, embezzlement, arson, and receiving stolen property. The 15 military offenses included convictions or dishonorable discharges for desertion from the Armed Forces of the United States, assault upon an officer, burglary and larceny. 35 licenses were granted to felons and misdemeanants in 1968 and 1969, subsequent to the suspension of Ali’s license.

Furthermore, the Commission had not in the past distinguished between recent convictions or sentences not yet served, and those older or served. The Commission’s records revealed numerous instances where a license had been issued in the same year of the applicant’s conviction of a serious crime. 28 boxers had been licensed to box while on probation, and 26 while serving their sentences on parole. Regardless, such distinctions would have the undesirable effect of discouraging a convicted applicant from exercising his right to pursue an appeal.

The court held that denying Ali a license because of his refusal to serve in the Armed Forces, while granting licenses to hundreds of other applicants convicted of other crimes and military offenses, appeared to be on its face intentional, arbitrary, and unreasonable discrimination. The court could not find a rational basis for singling out the offense of draft evasion as detrimental to the interests of boxing while holding that criminal activities such as murder, rape, and arson were not so classified. Draft offenders do not usually pose rehabilitation problems or threats to the public safety in the way that convicts of other crimes do. Additionally, there could be no rational basis for distinguishing between a deserter from the Armed Forces, to whom a license was granted, and a person who refuses to serve in the first place.

Therefore, the court granted Ali’s motion and enjoined the Commission from denying him a license to box. Although his federal criminal appeals were ongoing, Muhammad Ali would be able to box again.

Adam J. Pollack’s most recent book is “In the Ring With Jack Johnson — Part II: The Reign” published by Win by KO Publications.

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  1. bikermike 08:57pm, 08/08/2016

    cheney reminded me of an old saying… he never carried a weapon on any battlefield…..ever…but sent thousands into the frey…

    ‘‘bravest manager ’ of all time….as he never had to take the blows…of those who he sent to conflict

  2. bikermike 08:54pm, 08/08/2016

    political process failed ..on the Viet Nam conflict… took things like BIG GOVERNMENT KICKING THE SHIT OUT OF ALI…TO BRING IT TO THE COMMON MAN…

    IT WAS PROVED TO BE BULLSHIT…LEGALLY ...AFTER THREE YEARS…with millions and millions of people also opposing Viet Nam conflict…with no real reason to be there offered.

  3. bikermike 08:44pm, 08/08/2016

    ......just an observation….Dick Cheney got six…yes SIX DEFERMENTS ..and did not serve a minute in defense of his country…..nor did dubya…as he….as a member of the national guard….went AWOL..

    and both wound up in the top chairs….President and Vice President of the United States…..cheney landed it twice

  4. bikermike 08:33pm, 08/08/2016

    WWI saw USA enter the war later on….and they got a piece of what Britain and France wanted in Middle East… Until just recently…USA got oil for much less than world price…

    But, you’re right….when folks wanted to know why conscripts and volunteers were killed or maimed in Viet Nam…all they got was ....‘FREEDOM OVER TYRANNY’.. ditto with invasion of Iraq…

    Because you can kick ass…..doesn’t mean you shoud…

    USA is not loved worldwide….I was in Mexico when 911 took place..ran over to watch it on CNN in University cafeteria ....maybe four hundred students there when they showed second aircraft going into second tower…..THEY ALL CHEERED !!

  5. bikermike 04:31am, 08/03/2016

    Viet Nam ....wasn’t even considered ‘a war’ USA administration…Called it a military police action….thus hosing countless thousands of conscripts..or volunteers, out of veteran benefits.
    “protect freedom from tyranny’....was all we got from White House….and the refusal of Ali to fight in this .....unclear conflict brought a lot of people to ask just why USA..and some Allies , were there at all .

    This was not a proud time for American people.  My country, right or wrong !! , thinking had to give way to the masses.

  6. Joe Masterleo 06:53am, 06/07/2016

    Great column contextualizing the legal aspects of Ali’s years of enforced layoff from boxing.  Among other things, it’s an apt illustration and testimony to the notion that though the USA purportedly has the best system of jurisprudence in the world, in many instances the relationship between justice and our judicial system is purely coincidental. Of late, the advent of DNA testing has revealed that numerous jailed inmates have been released, many after having serving lengthy sentences, after the new technology has revealed their innocence.  And most of those, I might add, are people of color, mainly black men.

  7. Eric 05:42am, 06/06/2016

    @Jethro’s Flute…You might want to check out an EXCELLENT video on youtube titled, “Hellstorm,” based upon the book by Thomas Goodrich. This video shows what the “good guys” did to Germany during WWII. For someone like Tom Brokaw to call this “the good war,” is downright psychotic. This video is very graphic and the images are quite disturbing to say the least. Goodrich has covered various subjects such as the Native American genocide but he states this is by far his most important work.

  8. Kurwa Mac 07:46pm, 06/05/2016

    Mr. Pollack - Thanks for a great read.  Appreciate the research and facts.  Really puts into perspective a seemingly often misunderstood aspect of Ali’s career and life.. More interesting, as someone who visits this site often and is always impressed by the cast of characters who write for it; it doesn’t appear Ali is regularly regarded as the greatest fighter of all time by quite a few.. I guess it doesn’t matter.. He was great.

  9. Eric 06:55pm, 06/05/2016

    @Jethro’s Flute…December 12, 1916 German Peace Proposal. Let your fingers do the walking. Sleep tight, friend. Time for a couple of cold ones.

  10. Eric 05:39pm, 06/05/2016

    @Jethro’s Flute…Thanks for the correction. However, by the summer of 1916,  jolly ole Great Britian’s fleet had practically been laid to waste by German subs, their convoys weren’t getting through, and they were low on ammo and food. The French army had mutiny on its hands, the Italian army had collapsed, and the Russian army was defecting. “Stalemate?” Hardly.

  11. Jethro's Flute 04:05pm, 06/05/2016

    “Germany and the Central Powers had kicked the sh*t out of England, France, & Russia before offering them a peace settlement in 1916. England “

    For a start, there is a difference between England and Britain, I suggest you learn it.

    There was no peace deal in 1916 and the war was still a stalemate.

    Your post is all Marxist, conspiracy theory bollocks that ignores the fact that Japan had committed atrocities in China for years before Pearl Harbour.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 02:28pm, 06/05/2016

    Vitali Klitschko has hands like a concert pianist’s and Ali who pounded the shit out of some of the hardest heads ever in the sport had comparatively small hands. He commented about Jerry Quarry’s hands being large when they first shook hands….it wasn’t so much that Quarry’s hands were like Meadow Lark Lemon’s hands than it was about the size of Ali’s hands being that of an average sized man’s hands. Much like Oscar de la Hoya Ali had a titanium chin which served him well in the ring but not so well in the years post career.

  13. Eric 06:42am, 06/05/2016

    Military men are “dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns of foreign policy.” This beauty of a quote was allegedly uttered by Henry Kissinger. What a true humanitarian.

  14. bikermike 06:17am, 06/05/2016

    The man won the World Heavyweight Championship three times…

    ...was known outside the ring for his religion, beliefs and principles…including civil rights, Viet Nam war, and was active to promote his and many others’ views on these items.

    SO MUCH SO…that he was ready to give up his Title, and face a jail term !!

    Later…..for his beliefs’s…he refused treatment for his Parkinson’s Syndrom symptoms…from pharma-companies….whose medical treatment came from fetal tissue research.

    Ali was much more than a great Heavyweight Boxer…...much more.
    He will be remembered.

  15. Eric 06:05am, 06/05/2016

    Other than perhaps the Revolutionary War, I don’t think America has fought one single war that actually benefitted the American people. Contrary to what your teacher told you, slavery wasn’t the reason we fought the Civil War, and slavery would have ended without wasting 700,000 American lives. Germany and the Central Powers had kicked the sh*t out of England, France, & Russia before offering them a peace settlement in 1916. England made a deal with the banksters who promised they would bring America into the war. Woodrow Wilson who got elected by promising to keep America out of the war, broke his promise shortly after being elected. And we all have heard about Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor. Back in the day, not fully knowing any better, I thought Ali’s decision not to fight for his country was cowardly and disgraceful. Knowing what I know now, if they had a draft, and I was ordered to fight in these perpetual “wars” going on right now, I would tell them to shove it up their arse. I would gladly fight and die for my people and country, but I will not fight some useless war for a foreign entity, banksters, or chicken hawks. America had no business in Vietnam. I’m guessing most of the draft dodgers were cowards, but Ali surely wouldn’t have fought on the front lines, he would have been given a gig like Joe Louis. Ali’s decison was admirable, far from cowardly. There is only one victor in these manufactured wars of today and that is the banksters.