Highlight 4 | History | Issue | Premium | Aug 19 2019

Succeeding Muhammad Ali

When Muhammad was forced off the heavyweight throne in 1967, the World Boxing Association staged an audacious eight-man tournament to find a successor. Jack Hirsch tells the story
muhammad ali
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THE year was 1967 and the world was changing fast. It was the start of a revolution in which society could express its feelings in a way it had never before. It was the age of long-haired hippies, the raised fist signifying the black power movement, riots protesting the Vietnam war, young people smoking marijuana as their recreational activity of choice, and virtually anything else that went against the grain of the accepted norm.

It was the era of The Beatles, Martin Luther King, Robert Francis Kennedy, and of course Muhammad Ali. JFK and Malcolm X had been assassinated earlier in the decade, and in 1968, MLK and RFK were to follow. Much later, John Lennon would meet a similar fate. But perhaps the man at the greatest risk, the one despised more than any other person walking the face of the earth escaped the violent destiny that had befell the others. But Ali did pay a heavy price, when on April 28, 1967 he refused to take the oath to serve in the United States military. He was immediately stripped of his world heavyweight title while having his boxing licence revoked.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali would become a figure of protest The Courier-Journal/USA Today Sports

With Ali forced to the sidelines the powers that be immediately swung into action to find his successor. The major players were the World Boxing Association which was the only relevant sanctioning body in existence, ABC television in the United States who had Ali sidekick Howard Cosell behind the mic, Mike Malitz of Sports Action Incorporated who arranged the television deal with ABC. They worked closely with Harvard attorney, Bob Arum, who had promoted Ali’s title defence in Toronto against George Chuvalo the year before, and judge, Roy Hofheinz, who ran the Houston Astrodome. Together they gave us arguably the greatest tournament the sport of boxing has ever seen. In a period of less than nine months, the heavyweight division underwent a facelift like never before or since.