Muhammad Ali’s exile examined

Muhammad Ali’s boxing career is as storied as they come.

He won the heavyweight championship three times. He was brash. He predicted the rounds his foes would fall – and often fulfilled those predictions. He was loathed and loved for his personality and his bravado.

He stunned the boxing world in February 1964 by beating the “invincible” Sonny Liston with a seventh-round technical knockout; Liston quit on his stool.

Then came a fateful day in 1967 when the U.S. Army ordered him to report for duty. The champ had become a devout Muslim, changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and at the Selective Service office in Houston, he refused to take the symbolic step forward to join the Army.

Ali said his religious beliefs entitled him to decline service. He opposed the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time.

What did the boxing authorities do in response to Ali’s refusal to serve? They stripped him of his license to fight for a living. He was banned from boxing, a sport many people felt he had transcended through his outsized personality and his magnificent skill in the ring. In fact, Ali at the time – and during his exile – was considered to be the “famous person in the world.”

Independent Lens, PBS’s acclaimed documentary series, is going to examine Ali’s years in exile. The program airs Monday night on Panhandle PBS.

“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” tells the story of how the heavyweight champion of the world parlayed his exile to become an even larger personality than what he exhibited with his fists.

Ali became a huge draw on college campuses. He spoke against our nation’s involvement in Vietnam, declaring famously that he had “no quarrel with them Viet Congs.” The “hawks” at the time despised even more, while the “doves” welcomed the support of this sports icon to their ranks.

It was a rocky time for the champ, but he managed to win some important backing among political and sporting luminaries. Two of them are worth noting: Howard Cosell and a fellow fighter named Joe Frazier.

Cosell was a lawyer-turned-sports broadcaster who argued publicly that the boxing authorities were denying Ali his constitutional rights of free expression and dissent.

Frazier was an up-and-coming heavyweight and – like Ali – a one-time Olympic boxing gold medalist. He argued for Ali’s reinstatement for more self-serving reasons: He wanted to fight Ali, make a lot of money and cement his own reputation as a first-rate fighter. Frazier would win the heavyweight title in 1970.

And that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court made a stunning decision when it declared that Ali indeed had been denied due process and that his rights as a citizen were being denied unfairly. It overturned his suspension.

Ali came back. He won two warmup fights, then lost to Frazier in that epic fight in March 1971. He would go on to knock out George Foreman in 1974 and would regain his title a third time in 1978 before giving it up.

“The Trials of Muhammad Ali” will tell a story of courage and perseverance.

It airs Monday at 9 p.m. on Panhandle PBS.


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