A guest article by Adam J. Pollack, distinguished Iowa College of Law graduate, attorney, and boxing judge who practices law in Iowa. Adam has been active in the sport of boxing as both boxer and coach, and we are proud to post his discussion of the late great Muhammad Ali’s lesser known constitutional law bout with the New York State Athletic Commission.

On March 22, 1967, Muhammad Ali defended his world heavyweight boxing championship for the ninth time, knocking out Zora Folley in the seventh round. This would be Ali’s last bout for over three and a half years. 

On April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali reported for but declined to submit to induction into the Armed Forces of the United States on the grounds of his religious beliefs as a minister of the Islamic Religion.  

That same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended Muhammad Ali’s boxing license because of his refusal to submit to induction. The World Boxing Association (W.B.A.) immediately stripped Ali of his title. It soon became clear that no state would allow Ali to box. 

On June 20, 1967, Ali’s federal criminal jury trial resulted in his conviction for knowingly and willfully refusing to submit to induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, a felony. Although he had no prior criminal record or charges, the judge sentenced Ali to five years imprisonment and a fine of $10,000. Imprisonment was delayed pending the result of Ali’s appeals.

 On September 22, 1969, Ali applied to the New York State Athletic Commission for renewal of his expired license to box in New York. On October 14, 1969, the Commission unanimously denied his application because his “refusal to enter the service and felony conviction in violation of Federal law is regarded by this Commission to be detrimental to the best interests of boxing, or to the public interest, convenience or necessity.” Following the Commission’s decision, Ali brought an action for a preliminary injunction restraining the Commission from denying him a license to box in the State of New York. The legal battle was important, because it was clear that no other state would allow Ali to box, for the same reasons. He could not leave the country to box, because his passport had been seized as a condition of his release on $5,000 bond pending his appeal. 

On September 14, 1970, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Ali’s motion for a preliminary injunction restraining the New York State Athletic Commission from refusing to grant him a boxing license. Ali v. Division of State Athletic Commission, 316 F. Supp. 1246 (S.D.N.Y. 1970). Ali’s Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim was based in part on his charge that the Commission’s action was arbitrary and capricious in that Ali’s conviction for draft evasion had no rational relationship to the regulated activity of boxing and therefore was irrelevant to the proper exercise of the Commission’s functions. The Court agreed. Ali also alleged that the Commission discriminated against him in violation of his rights under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires the government to treat similarly situated persons similarly, without discrimination. The Court also agreed. 

In support of his equal protection claim, Ali demonstrated numerous other occasions in which professional boxers who had been convicted of crimes had been licensed despite their records. For example, Joey Giardello had been convicted of assault. Rocco Barbella, also known as Rocky Graziano, twice had been convicted of petty larceny, and had been court martialed while serving in the United States Army and convicted of being absent without leave and disobeying orders. Graziano was sentenced to one year hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. Sonny Liston had been convicted of armed robbery and assault with intent to kill. Unlike Ali, these boxers had been granted licenses to box. 

The Commission’s records revealed at least 244 instances in recent years in which it granted, renewed, or reinstated boxing licenses to applicants who had been convicted of one or more felonies, misdemeanors or military offenses. Some 94 felons licensed included persons convicted of activities such as second degree murder, burglary, armed robbery, extortion, grand larceny, rape, sodomy, aggravated assault and battery, embezzlement, arson, and receiving stolen property. The 15 military offenses included convictions or dishonorable discharges for desertion from the Armed Forces of the United States, assault upon an officer, burglary and larceny. 35 licenses were granted to felons and misdemeanants in 1968 and 1969, subsequent to the suspension of Ali’s license.  

Furthermore, the Commission had not in the past distinguished between recent convictions or sentences not yet served, and those older or served. The Commission’s records revealed numerous instances where a license had been issued in the same year of the applicant’s conviction of a serious crime. 28 boxers had been licensed to box while on probation, and 26 while serving their sentences on parole. Regardless, such distinctions would have the undesirable effect of discouraging a convicted applicant from exercising his right to pursue an appeal.  

The court held that denying Ali 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, appeared to be on its face intentional, arbitrary, and unreasonable discrimination. The court could not find a rational basis for singling out the offense of draft evasion as detrimental to the interests of boxing while holding that criminal activities such as murder, rape, and arson were not so classified. Draft offenders do not usually pose rehabilitation problems or threats to the public safety in the way that convicts of other crimes do. Additionally, there could be no rational basis for distinguishing between a deserter from the Armed Forces, to whom a license was granted, and a person who refuses to serve in the first place.  

Therefore, the court granted Ali’s motion and enjoined the Commission from denying him a license to box. Although his federal criminal appeals were ongoing, Muhammad Ali would be able to box again.