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About a time when a boxer tested the rule of law

Trial lawyer Reuben Guttman reflects on the life and battles, both in the ring and in court, of Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., died on 3 June

You do not have to learn history if you live it. I remember March 1971. The black and white TV sets flashed nightly news accounts of the death toll in Vietnam; it had been less than a year since members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on war protestors at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine others. Richard Nixon was nearing the end of his first term and though over two years had passed, the nation's soul was still aching from the murders of Dr King and Bobby Kennedy.

In March 1971, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were occurrences in the lifetime of an elementary school sixth grader while battles over school desegregation through busing were not just history but current events.

The year 1971 was part of an era when the nation was polarised, rife with conflict, and the sporting world was no safe haven. In 1968, Olympic gold medallist Tommie Smith - a true gentleman whom I had the pleasure of interviewing years later - had been unceremoniously suspended from the Mexico City Olympics by Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee Chairman, after giving the black power salute on the medal stand. In 1969, amidst their stunning run to a World Series win, New York Mets Ace Pitcher Tom Seaver came out in opposition to US engagement in Vietnam. Seaver had reportedly told columnist Jimmy Breslin that "if the Mets can win the World Series, the US can get out of Vietnam."

And on March 8, 1971, the merger of sports and politics took centre stage at Madison Square Garden. Mohammed Ali, whose license to box had been restored after a felony conviction for refusing induction into the Army, and while awaiting a decision on his fate by the United States Supreme Court, fought heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier. Ali was brash, witty, and spoke his mind on the hot button issues – the war and civil rights. His mouth was a pure product of the First Amendment.

His rhetoric was devoid of profanity, often succinct, and – with the exception of remarks directed at his boxing opponents – actually lacked the type of incendiary personal attacks made by some of the 2016 US Presidential candidates.

The March 1971 Ali-Frazier bout was the confluence of sport, civil rights and the anti-war movement, focused like a laser beam on a boxing ring that drew the attention of a nation. Though it was a battle between two black men who faced the challenges of an America that for the bulk of their lifetimes condoned segregated schools and places of public accommodation, the fight touched the nation at some level as a referendum on Ali's positions on civil rights, the war and above all the right of a black man to speak out and challenge the establishment. It was an event that divided the nation from youth to senior, "Are you for Frazier or Ali?" Adding to the mystique of the event was its secrecy. It was not televised, nor was there a live radio broadcast.  It was not until Life Magazine published a photo spread that the public got a true visual of the spectacle. For the elementary school sixth grader, news of Ali's loss did not come in real time but had to wait until the morning after the fight.

Ali went on to win back and lose and win back the championship before finally losing it for good. By the accounts of boxing aficionados, the first Ali-Frazier bout was not necessarily the best. But by the confluence of events of the time it was unmatched.

Four months after the fight, in June 1971, the United States Supreme Court overturned Ali's conviction. The case, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. v United States, is an interesting read. It turns out that a hearing officer, who reviewed FBI interviews with 35 witnesses and took live testimony, sustained Ali's claim of conscientious objector status. When the Justice Department weighed in against Ali at an administrative appellate level, the finding of the hearing officer was rejected. Following his refusal to be inducted, a Federal Court in Houston convicted Ali. Recognising the hearing officer's original determination that Ali's position was based on sincerely held religious beliefs, the Supreme Court was left with no choice but to reverse the conviction in an 8-0 decision. This month marks the 45th anniversary of that decision.

When Mohammed Ali died this week, the TV news rolled continuous tributes to this black man who grew up in a segregated South, elevated his voice through success in the brutal sport of boxing and with that voice took positions, both in the courts and through his First Amendment Rights, that challenged the government and even the boxing establishment which banned him during his prime. While Ali will be remembered for many things, many will never forget that he was an American who benefited from the rule of law and aggressively tested its fabric. That is the way this sixth grader back in 1971 remembers him.

Reuben Guttman is a trial lawyer and founding partner at Washington, DC-based firm Guttman, Buschner & Brooks.

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07 June 2016

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