The Trials of Muhammad Ali Doc of the Week

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

He is the most famous boxer in history. The first person to win the world heavyweight title three times, Ali fought some truly memorable bouts during a storied career that lasted more than two decades. However, his greatest battles happened outside the ring. This is the story of his conversion to Islam and his controversial stance against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. eir sport 1, Mon, Dec 4th 21.30

He was Cassius Clay, a brash young heavyweight from Kentucky. He won gold in the light-heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics and quickly took boxing’s professional ranks by storm. When he stopped the supposedly unbeatable Sonny Liston in Miami in February 1964 to claim the heavyweight crown for the first time, he had, to use his own words, well and truly ‘shook up the world’.

Never short of a word or two, he was affectionately, to most but not all, known as the ‘Louisville Lip’. Always good for a quote or even a rhyme, he became something of a media darling in difficult times of civil unrest and tension between the races in America. Indeed, such was his impact that he single-handedly helped transform boxing into a global sport that was as much about theatre and showbiz as it was about blood, sweat and tears.

It is no exaggeration to say that everyone who came after him owes him a debt of gratitude for helping to broaden interest (and purses) in the sport. A friend to Hollywood stars and musicians such as The Beatles, James Brown and Bob Dylan, he was equally at home at swanky showbiz events as he was hitting a punch bag in the gym.


His fights with Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman amongst others are the stuff of legend - even half a century later. At his height he was one of the most recognisable faces on the planet and remains widely beloved some 18 months after his passing following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine five times, more than any other athlete, and was awarded both the Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom all of which makes it very difficult to believe that he was once one of the most vilified and hated figures in America.

Directed by Bill Siegel, The Trials of Muhammad Ali shines a light on that fascinating period in his career. In an age when successful black people were meant to show some gratitude to their former masters for their success, Clay had already upset more than a few interviewers with his braggadocio (most notably an irate Jerry Lewis) before completely polarising opinion with his conversion to Islam.

Conversion to Islam

That conversion came following his victory over Liston in early 1964. He rejected the name ‘Cassius Clay’, referring to it as his ‘slave name’, and instead began calling himself Muhammad Ali. He became a fervent follower of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, an association he would maintain for over a decade.

His outspokenness made him a symbol of racial pride for many African-Americans. However, his reference to all white men as ‘devils’ was seen as divisive and set many of his former fans against him. He was accused of spreading racial hatred and, along with the organisation and the teachings he espoused, the one-time media darling was now viewed as an object of suspicion.


But there was even more controversy to follow. In early 1966 Ali was notified that he was now eligible for conscription to the US Army to serve in Vietnam. He said he would refuse to be drafted if called up, famously saying ‘No Viet Cong ever called me nigger’. He further added that the war was just a continuation of the ‘domination of white slave masters over dark people the world over’. But the authorities were closing in and a year later he was refused a boxing license and stripped of his title. He was also convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison with a fine of $10,000.

It looked like his career was over. He paid a bond which kept him out of jail while he appealed the decision, a process that took over three-and-a-half years and denied him the chance to fight when he was at the peak of his physical powers. But he refused to back down and continued to speak out against the war, addressing public meetings and touring college campuses. While he encountered hostility at first, with one TV interviewer even calling him a ‘disgrace to his country, race and profession’ to his face, the tide of opinion soon turned as the number of American casualties continued to mount. Very soon public opinion was on his side and his reputation was redeemed for all but his most fervent critics.


He returned to the ring in late October 1970 against Jerry Quarry and embarked upon a series of legendary bouts against Frazier (three times), Norton (twice) and Foreman that rank among the greatest fights of all time. He regained the heavyweight crown from Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974 before losing and regaining it four years later against Leon Spinks.

He fought on until 1981, long after everyone but Ali himself had accepted that the time had come to hang up his gloves. The wit and humour were still there, but the years and the punishment had slowed him considerably. It was a sad end to a remarkable boxing career, but he continued to be a voice for peace and moderation until his death.

Images: Getty

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