How ‘The Greatest’ was robbed of his future boxing career by The Man

Courtesy of Independent Lens

Muhammad Ali walks through the streets of New York with members of the Black Panther Party in September 1970.

Herald Staff Report

For a generation of boxing fans, the term “The Champ” can mean only one man: Muhammad Ali.

But fewer and fewer members of the generations who never saw him fight may not remember he missed what was likely the prime of his career. For them, and those of us who could use a refresher in the history of the 1960s, Durango Community Cinema will present a free screening Wednesday of “The Trials of Muhammad Ali.”

This is not a boxing flick. The feature-length documentary film covers the years 1967 to 1970, just three years into his run as heavyweight champion, when Ali fought to overturn the five-year prison sentence he received for refusing to fight in Vietnam. If that sounds like cowardice or a lack of patriotism, consider his own explanation of his actions.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father... Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

Prior to becoming the most recognizable face on Earth, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and found himself in the crosshairs of conflicts concerning civil rights, religion and wartime dissent. The fury he faced from an American public enraged by his opposition to the Vietnam War and unwilling to accept his conversion to Islam has global implications for generations now coming of age amidst contemporary fissures involving freedom, faith and military conflict.

Today, people are more likely to be introduced to Ali via films like “When We Were Kings”, footage of him lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 or being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. This film covers the firestorm surrounding Ali when he lived in exile within the U.S., stripped of his heavyweight belt and banned from boxing, sacrificing fame and fortune on principle. It explores his political, spiritual and cultural dimensions from his hometown of Louisville, Ky., to the far corners of the Earth, enabling audiences to consider the full resonance of Ali for all time.

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