Muhammad Ali
Credit: Neil Leifer / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images
Ali's retention of the heavyweight title continued to rankle critics, including some in powerful positions. The champion was dismayed a few months later when told he was in danger of being drafted into the U.S. military, just as the war in Vietnam was intensifying. In 1964 he'd been classified 1-Y, which meant he failed the standards of service (Ali could barely read and was probably dyslexic). But the classification had just been adjusted to 1-A: Ali was now eligible for the draft, without being subject to further testing. "Why are they gunning for me?" he asked, though there was never much question in anybody's mind. The U.S. was likely trying to defuse the possibility that he might loom as a role model for other young black Americans. But when Ali reacted by proclaiming that he did not share the U.S.'s purposes in the Vietnam War, his influence on young Americans – both white and black – only grew. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he told a reporter. "They ain't never called me nigger." Ali's comments were seen as outrageous, even traitorous. Boxing commissions, as well as war veterans associations and numerous politicians, said they would not tolerate any of his fights within their sway.

Ali applied for conscientious objector status – which would excuse him from military service – on grounds of the Nation of Islam's religious beliefs. The Selective Service department ruled against any exemption, determining that Ali's religion was "racist and political." On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. military. Within an hour the New York State Athletic Commission stripped him of his title and any license to fight in the state. Other state boards quickly followed suit. Muhammad Ali was no longer champion anywhere within the United States and could no longer work in professional boxing or leave the country to work. Within weeks he was indicted on charges of refusing to serve and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to the maximum penalty: a $10,000 fine and five years in federal prison. "[If] all that was left now was to serve the five-year jail term, and forget boxing, I was prepared," he wrote in The Greatest.

For the next few years Muhammad Ali became one of the most popularly reviled but also one of the most popularly admired persons in America. The U.S. government's wayward prosecution of him caused many – including black leaders who had earlier been troubled by his association with the Nation of Islam – to view him more sympathetically. Julian Bond, a social activist who had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, said, "When Ali refused to take that symbolic step forward, everyone knew it moments later. You could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone's lips. People who had never thought about the war – black and white – began to think about it because of Ali. The ripples were enormous."

On the day he was stripped of the title, Ali was already anticipating the long banishment ahead. "I strongly object," he said, "to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand – either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice."