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On This Date in Sports June 28, 1971: Ali Wins Unanimous Decision

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Muhammad Ali gets the most critical unanimous decision of his career as the Supreme Court votes 8-0 to overturn his conviction for refusing to answer the draft into the army. Ali, who was born Cassius Clay, refused to join the military, claiming to be a conscientious objector in 1966. He was later convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, while his boxing license was suspended. The decision by the court vacated the conviction and vindicated Ali.    

Born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali won a gold medal in boxing at the 1960 Olympics and turned professional. Quickly moving up the heavyweight division, Clay stunned Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964. The following day he announced his conversion to Islam and changed his name. 

Initially failing the test to qualify for the draft, Muhamad Ali was reclassified 1-A status in 1966. This led to him being called upon to join the U.S. Army at the time the Vietnam War was beginning to escalate. Citing his Muslim faith, Ali appalled to the draft board in Louisville to be a conscientious objector. In a statement, Muhammad Ali angered many Americans by saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

By 1967, Muhammad Ali had moved to Houston, and continued to refuse to answer his call into service with the U.S. Army. Ali appeared for his induction but refused to step forward. He was arrested and charged with refusing induction into the Armed Forces. As a result, Muhammad Ali was stripped of the heavyweight title and suspended from boxing. A few months later, Ali was convicted of violating selective service laws and sentenced to five years in prison. 

Muhammad Ali was able to remain out on bail as he appealed the conviction. Ali’s first appeal as rejected in 1968, leading the case to go all the way to the Supreme Court. Muhammad Ali would resume his fighting career as his lawyers argued his case before the top court in the United States. The case captioned Clay v. United States would go overwhelmingly in the boxer’s favor as the ruling was an 8-0 unanimous decision with Justice Thurgood Marshall recusing himself. SCOTUS ruled that the government failed to properly specify why his application as a contentious objector was denied. The failure required the conviction to overturned. 

Muhammad Ali, free of the burden of a possible prison sentence, would go on to reclaim the heavyweight championship in 1974 at “the Rumble in the Jungle.”