In April 1967, Muhammad Ali stood in Houston’s Military Entrance Processing Station and refused to step forward when his name was called for the military draft for the war in Vietnam.
Six months later, a plane piloted by Naval aviator John McCain was shot down during a bombing mission over Hanoi. Injured, he was captured, beaten, tortured and kept imprisoned in Hoa Lo — called the “Hanoi Hilton” by POWs — for the next 5½ years.
These were two historic figures on opposite sides of one of the most polarizing American issues of the 20th century. You would think that they would be enemies for life, given the political differences that defined their lives.
But more than 20 years later, there were Ali and McCain, standing as allies and friends on Capitol Hill, fighting against the corruption of boxing with the passing of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, meant to clean up the sport and protect fighters.
It seemed like they were tilting against windmills, but the law did force promoters to be more transparent about earnings and also limited coercive contracts between fighters and promoters.
Both men were used to beating the odds.
McCain, of course, emerged from that POW prison to become a United States senator, presidential candidate and one of the most beloved and admired elected officials in America, as witnessed by the outpouring of emotion from across the political spectrum when the news came out Saturday night that McCain passed away after his battle with brain cancer at the age of 81.
It is, in a way, similar to the outpouring of emotion two years earlier, when his friend and ally, Ali, passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. The fighter’s opposition to the Vietnam War saw him stripped of his heavyweight championship and banned from boxing for 3½ years. But he eventually won his battle for conscientious objector status before the U.S. Supreme Court and emerged to become heavyweight champion again.
The two struggles are hardly the same — McCain’s burden was obviously far greater and more costly than Ali’s — but they were rooted in the same war on opposite sides. As symbols of their time, they could not be more different.
But there was McCain, a former boxer at the U.S. Naval Academy, saddened when Ali died two years ago, expressing his sympathy for the former heavyweight champion and Vietnam War critic.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Muhammad Ali, three-time heavyweight champion and American boxing legend. Professional boxing is a sport that can offer considerable rewards to athletes of uncommon strength, skill, and determination — and Muhammad Ali was simply ‘The Greatest’ of them all,” McCain said in a statement.
“(Wife) Cindy and my sincere condolences are with his wife Lonnie and the entire Ali family. Today we lost an incredible man whose passion for the sport, for fairness and for life was to the great benefit of us all.
“He was a friend and a longtime hero of mine for his trademark dedication and fearlessness both in and out of the ring,” McCain wrote of Ali. “In addition to being the legendary fighter, Ali was a trailblazer in reforming the sport he loved. It was Ali who inspired my work to improve the sport of boxing for fans and fighters alike, first with the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act and most recently supporting research on fighter brain health and safety. Ali’s advocacy made it possible for a new generation of boxers to be free from the mistreatment and coercion that he and many others faced.”
This from a man who suffered in a North Vietnamese POW prison while Ali fought against the war that McCain had committed his life to.
McCain never accepted Ali’s opposition to the war. “I didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” he told ESPN. “I wish that every American had served. But I respect what he did. He didn’t dodge the draft, run to Canada or break the law … one time it came up, and I said, ‘Muhammad, I don’t agree with what you did. But then I’ve probably done a lot of things you don’t agree with, either.”
Two very different men, representing very different sides, connected by respect — not just for each other, but a mutual respect of humanity. The world couldn’t afford to lose either one.
⦁ Thom Loverro’s podcast, “Cigars & Curveballs,” is available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver network.
Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.