The moment Muhammad Ali became more than a sports icon

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

Let’s assume for this discussion that the Vietnam War never occurred.

Let’s assume that Muhammad Ali was not deprived of his right to box from June 28, 1967, until Oct. 26, 1970. Ali was convicted of draft evasion on June 28, 1967, for refusing induction into the Army because he was a conscientious objector to the war.

His passport was taken and individual states denied him a boxing license. The sanctioning bodies stripped him of their titles. With little education, Ali was left to go on the college lecture circuit to earn a living.

The arc of Ali’s life story would be dramatically different, though, if there were no war and he had continued to fight uninterrupted.

Ali wouldn’t have been Ali, no matter how great his boxing talents, if the war had not occurred. That would have led to dramatic differences in society as well as in boxing.

It’s easiest and more clear-cut to deal with the boxing issue.

Even Ali believed that Sugar Ray Robinson is the greatest boxer who ever lived. Robinson was a combination of speed, power and technique that the world hasn’t seen before, or since.

Without the exile, that took three years and four months from the prime of his career, Ali might well be regarded as The Best Ever (wink, wink).

It is fair to assume that with no exile, Ali would at a minimum have fought twice more in 1967, four times in both 1968 and 1969 and three times in 1970 before he actually was able to return on Oct. 26, 1970.

By conservative estimate, that means that 13 fights were lost because of his exile.

Muhammad Ali died Friday after a prolonged battle with Parkinson's Disease. (AP)
Muhammad Ali died Friday after a prolonged battle with Parkinson's Disease. (AP)

The layoff robbed Ali of some of his speed and timing, and his lateral movement wasn’t nearly as good. He clearly didn’t have the reflexes he’d had before, though they were still very good until the mid-1970s.

He was a much more flat-footed fighter upon his return than he had been previously.

Before, it was easy for him to hit and not be hit. Upon his return, he had to be willing to get hit in order to hit, and that ultimately led to his decline.

It would not have changed the world much, though, if Ali and not Robinson were considered the greatest pound-for-pound fighter ever. It would have been a thing for debate over a cold beer, largely among boxing fans. The wider world beyond the boxing audience probably doesn't really care about that.

But without the war and the political upheaval that was going on in the 1960s and into the 1970s, there likely would not have been an opportunity for Ali to make the cultural, societal, political and moral impact that he eventually would make.

Ali sacrificed in many ways when he refused to go into the Army. Financially, it was a disaster. If we consider that he would have made an average of $1 million in those 13 theoretical fights he would have missed, adjusted for inflation it meant that he gave up $86.4 million in purse money.

And, of course, I think if he had been around and kept winning, he would have made more and not less than $1 million per fight. But at a $1 million average for fight, adjusted for inflation, he lost nearly $90 million in today’s dollars.

It was his choice, of course, but one of the reasons he’s so widely admired is that he had the courage of his convictions, even when he knew it would hurt him badly.

Ali was willing to risk everything that was dear to him to live his beliefs.

Families who lost loved ones in that war, and other military conflicts that followed, likely have difficulty accepting any praise heaped upon Ali. And they probably cringe at the mention of the word hero next to his name.

There is no higher honor than to die in service to one’s country, particularly when fighting for a noble cause.

Ali, though, was a man of peace, as his actions throughout his life would prove. At great risk to himself, and against the wishes of the George H.W. Bush administration, he flew to Baghdad in 1990 to appeal to Saddam Hussein for the release of hostages the Iraqi dictator had taken when he led an invasion of Kuwait.

Six days later, Ali left with the 15 American hostages he sought to save.

He got that platform, though, and as a result quite possibly saved those people’s lives, because of his stance on the Vietnam War.

His stance on the war gave him the gravitas, and he used it to preach doing the right thing. He encouraged children to stay in school and get their educations. He gave his money to poor people in need and pleaded with repressive regimes to treat its citizens more fairly.

Muhammad Ali is held back by the referee after knocking out Sonny Liston. (AP file photo)
Muhammad Ali is held back by the referee after knocking out Sonny Liston. (AP file photo)

Had there been no war and he remained only a boxer, none of what followed likely would have happened.

There would have been no audience with the Pope. There would have been no crowds of refugees running toward him, hoping to just touch the great man. They would not have chanted “Ali, bomaye!” as they so often did.

Ali would have used any opportunity he had to do good, but it wouldn’t have been as impactful or as far reaching without the stature he gained from his battle with the government in the 1960s.

Ali simply wouldn’t have been Ali without saying no to induction in the military.

When he was convicted of draft evasion, he didn’t run to Canada, where so many others who didn’t want to serve in the U.S. military did to avoid the long arm of the law. He stayed in the U.S. and faced justice. He used the legal system to appeal, and eventually won.

He did it the way one should do it.

It was a confluence of events: the war, the turmoil in the world, his athletic ability, his social conscience and his determination to make a difference that led him to be the man he was.

Without it, he would have been just another great athlete.

Without the war, Ali would have been a name, a revered one, but just a name.

With the war, and his subsequent actions, Ali became a symbol.

He was the perfect man at the perfect time.

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