In 1966, The Ring magazine withheld the title of “Fighter of the Year” from Muhammad Ali, saying he wasn’t an example outside the ring. Half a century on, the magazine’s editors have decided to right that wrong.
Mr. Ali was known for his stances on a host of political and moral issues, weaving them into the fiber of his public life. Fifty years ago, as the Vietnam War continued abroad and the battle for civil rights raged at home, Ali was at the center of the action. As part of the controversial Nation of Islam, he became an emblem of black pride and advocated for black respect. A staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, he became a conscientious objector.
For The Ring’s editors, back in 1966, his political activism disqualified Ali from eligibility for the “Fighter of the Year” award – regardless of his boxing success. Today, though, attitudes have changed: Ali’s political stances shouldn’t obscure his athletic success, the editors say. In fact, some argue Ali’s strongly-held beliefs are an example for athletes today.
“Bottom line: He was punished for standing up for his beliefs and his association with a controversial organization, factors that almost certainly wouldn’t preclude a worthy candidate from winning a similar award today,” wrote The Ring’s current editor-in-chief, Michael Rosenthal.
In 1966, Ali went 5-0, with four knockouts. His third-round knockout of Cleveland Williams was, The Ring wrote in August, “a fight in which many believe Ali was at his very best.”
Even The Ring’s co-founder Dan Daniel, attempting to justify the magazine’s refusal to award the title to Ali, acknowledged in the magazine’s March 1967 edition that Ali deserved the award “strictly on the basis of achievement with his fists.”
For many observers today, that should be all that matters.
“This has nothing to do with Vietnam, this is boxing,” Ali’s friend and former rival Larry Holmes told The Ring when he learned of the magazine's decision to retroactively bestow Ali with the honor. “He was the best. You’re rewarding him and giving him credit for that.”
At the time, the editors deemed Ali, who was affiliated with the Nation of Islam and an alleged “draft-dodger” (the Supreme Court unanimously upheld him as a conscientious objector in 1971), to be in violation of the fourth criterion for determining the Fighter of the Year: “The Fighter of the Year must be recognized as an example to the Growing American Boy.”
Today, though, Ali is seen differently. He was the archetypal “athlete as moral crusader,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass wrote shortly after the champion boxer’s death in June. And so, 50 years on, The Ring will finally award the 1966 award they never gave.
Like Ali, some current athletes have taken political stances. LeBron James tweeted his support for Trayvon Martin after the teenager was shot and killed in Florida. Several NBA teams wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to honor Eric Garner, a black man who suffocated while being arrested in New York in 2014. And Colin Kaepernick made headlines for kneeling during the national anthem in what he described as a stand for racial equality.
But in an era where professional athletes largely keep their political views to themselves, some are nostalgic for Ali’s strongly-held beliefs.
Kilbert Pierce, a trainer at Boston’s The Ring boxing club, told the Monitor in June that athletes shouldn’t be obligated to share their political views. But he values it when they do. Besides Ali, he cited basketball player Bill Russell, football player Jim Brown, and martial artist Bruce Lee, all vocal political activists, as people he would have liked to meet.
“What they went through, how they responded. I think that’s what made them great for me,” he says. “That made them appeal more to me than other athletes.”