Perhaps the most trailblazing Black athlete of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali was arguably the first athlete as good as the confidence that spewed from his mouth. Ali opened the door for the confident, daring athletes we adore today, such as Richard Sherman, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Cam Newton.
Born Cassius Clay Jr on January 17 1942, Clay (which was still his official name at the time) became a world Heavyweight champion by the age of 22, defeating Sonny Liston in 1964. Soon, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, and would dominate boxing for a period of time in the 1960s and the 1970s, holding the heavyweight title in 1964, 1974 and 1978.
Ali, always unafraid to voice his opinions on social injustice, gained his hero-like status in the late 60s. In 1966, changes in classification for the Military Draft made Ali eligible to be drafted for the Vietnam War, in which he declined to go. For this, he claimed himself to be a conscientious objector and stated this famous comment about his reluctance to enlist:
“War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” More succinctly and famously he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me N*gger.”
On April 28, 1967, on the day he was expected to be inducted for service, Ali’s government name was called three times, and all three times he refused to step forward. He was arrested immediately and on June 20, 1967, he was found guilty. Although four years later his conviction was overturned in which he served no jail time, his boxing license was suspended in every state for three and a half years, in which he did not fight until October 1970. Still, his stance against the Vietnam War, while also highlighting the ludicrous stance America would want its own African Americans to fight for a country who wouldn’t fight for them, made him a hero to many and an idol to more.
Check out two more quotes below that helped revolutionize Ali as the athlete African Americans heralded in the 20th century.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?“
“My enemy is the white people, not the Viet Cong … You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America because of my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, when you won’t even stand up for my religious beliefs at home.”