Celebrating Muhammad Ali’s Contributions to Combat Sports Law


Ali Bob M Artwork

(Artwork by Bob Mueller)

As the world mourns the loss of Muhammad Ali far greater tributes have been written than I can piece together.  I will leave that to the professionals.  In my humble corner of the internet, however, attribution is called for to celebrate Muhammad Ali’s significant contributions to the world of combat sports law.

Ali’s greatest legal victory was a United States Supreme Court ruling finding he met the classification of “conscientious objector” when he was inducted into the Armed Forces and ultimately overturning his felony conviction for refusing to submit to induction.

In the wake of Ali’s conviction he was systematically denied licencing by boxing commissions throughout the United States.  While this robbed him prime years in his professional career he did not take these refusals lying down and here lies  one of Ali’s two important contributions to the combat sports legal landscape.

Ali fought the New York State Athletic Commission ultimately obtaining a ruling that his licence denial was ‘arbitrary and capricious‘ with the Commission’s inconsistency and hypocrisy being published for the world to read.

In the case (Muhanad Ali v. Division of State Athletic commission, N.Y.) the Commission argued that as a then convicted felon (as his US Supreme Court Appeal had not yet concluded) they where within their rights to deny his licence.  The Court agreed provided they exercised this power with consistency and here is where they fell short.  In ordering that Ali’s licence was wrongfully denied the Court provided the following damning reasons:

Following the filing of the amended complaint, Ali’s counsel, exercising his rights of pretrial discovery, investigated the Commission’s current files for the purpose of determining whether it had licensed other boxers who had been convicted of crimes or military offenses. The fruits of this investigation are rather astounding. The Commission’s records reveal at least 244 instances in recent years where it has granted, renewed or reinstated boxing licenses to applicants who have been convicted of one or more felonies, misdemeanors or military offenses involving moral turpitude. Some 94 felons thus licensed include persons convicted for such anti-social activities as second degree murder, burglary, armed robbery, extortion, grand larceny, rape, sodomy, aggravated assault and battery, embezzlement, arson and receiving stolen property. The misdemeanor convictions, 135 in number, were for such offenses as petty larceny, possession of narcotics, attempted rape, assault and battery, fraud, impairing the morals of a minor, possession of burglar’s tools, possession of dangerous weapons, carrying concealed weapons, automobile theft and promotion of gambling. The 15 military offenses include convictions or dishonorable discharges for desertion from the Armed Forces of the United States, assault upon an officer, burglary and larceny. On the basis principally of these undisputed records, plaintiff now seeks preliminary injunctive relief.

If the Commission in the present case had denied licenses to all applicants convicted of crimes or military offenses, plaintiff would have no valid basis for demanding that a license be issued to him. But the action of the Commission in denying him a license because of his refusal to serve in the Armed Forces while granting licenses to hundreds of other applicants convicted of other crimes and military offenses involving moral turpitude appears on its face to be an intentional, arbitrary and unreasonable discrimination against plaintiff, not the even-handed administration of the law which the Fourteenth Amendment requires. Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 373-374, 6 S.Ct. 1064, 30 L.Ed. 220 (1886). It is not suggested that any rational basis exists for singling out the offense of draft evasion for labelling as

[316 F.Supp. 1251]


“conduct detrimental to the interests of boxing” while holding that all other criminal activities such as murder, rape, arson, burglary, robbery and possession of narcotics are not so classified. All other things being equal, the convicted murderer, burglar, rapist, or robber would seem to present a greater risk of corruptibility as a licensed boxer, and a greater likelihood of bringing boxing into disrepute, than would the person who openly refused to serve in the Armed Forces. We find it even more difficult to detect any rational basis for distinguishing between a deserter from the Armed Forces, to whom a boxing license has been granted by the Commission, and a person who frankly refuses in the first place to serve.

Nor do we see any rational basis for denying Ali a license because his conviction is “recent” (June 20, 1967), and he has not yet served his sentence. The Commission’s contention that the recentness of Ali’s conviction provides an adequate basis for denying him a license is without merit. Although a distinction between recent and older convictions is reasonable in the abstract, the Commission’s own records reveal that it has not made such a distinction in its disposition of other applications. The Commission’s records reveal numerous instances where a license has been issued either in the same year as, or within a year or two after, the applicant’s conviction of a serious crime.

Ali’s next legal legacy, perhaps more important than the above victory keeping Athletic Commissions in check, is federal legislation bearing his name, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which overhauled the Professional Boxing Safety Act providing meaningful protections for professional boxers.

This legacy of reform is being used to this day with further legislation riding Ali’s coat-tails hoping to expand these federal protections to professional Mixed Martial Artists along with other combat sports athletes.  I won’t repeat all the things the “Ali Act” accomplishes in boxing and could accomplish in MMA but for those interested in these developments you can click here for more details.

Ali’s legacy is tremendous leaving his mark on many aspects of life including the combat sports legal landscape.  A true legend that serves as inspiration to anyone looking to stand up for what is right.

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