Monday, December 14, 2009

Ali Denied Chance to Fight in Tampa, 12/11/69

As the turbulent 1960s neared a conclusion, the city of Tampa – which had been mostly removed from the major upheaval faced by other large cities during the decade – had to contend with one last issue of cultural importance.

Perhaps never before, and certainly never since, have sports and politics been so intertwined as in the career of boxer Muhammad Ali. One cannot speak of his boxing career without noting the social, cultural and political impact. Likewise, one cannot mention his place in boxing history without acknowledging how the divisiveness of his personal politics affected his career in the ring.

A refresher: In 1967, Ali – who changed his name from Cassius Clay after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964 -- refused to be drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces due to his religious convictions and opposition to the Vietnam War. Although today Ali is generally a sympathetic figure, well-respected and admired, it’s worth remembering how public opinion about him has changed over time.

His association with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad made him a lightning rod for controversy during the heart of the civil rights movement. His views on the Vietnam War, and his famous reason for not having a quarrel with the Viet Cong, provoked outrage from those who didn’t understand what made him so different from other Americans subject to the draft.

Arrested, stripped of his heavyweight title, found of guilty of draft evasion and denied a boxing license, Ali found himself at a career impasse as the decade came to a close.

It just wouldn’t have been a proper sendoff to the 1960s had sports and politics not intersected yet again. Over the course of several days in December 1969, Tampa served as the battleground for one more cultural tug-of-war with Muhammad Ali at the forefront.

On December 9, 1969, news broke that local businessman and promoter Ron Gorton had arranged to stage a bout between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali at the 46,477-seat Tampa Stadium on February 16, 1970. Gorton, executive director of the Lions Club American Bowl game, called the potential fight “the biggest sports thing to ever hit Tampa.”

He was right. A heavyweight title fight at Tampa Stadium would have been seen by hundreds of millions around the world and easily would have been the most significant sporting event in the city’s pre-Super Bowl hosting history. One could argue Tampa wasn’t officially a big-time city until acquiring a pro football franchise in the mid-1970s. This boxing match, however, might well have been the event to put Tampa on the map.

The likelihood of the fight taking place cleared an enormous hurdle when the Tampa Boxing Commission unanimously voted to license the fight.

Many public officials came out in support of the event, even if they did not openly agree with or like Ali personally. For his part, Gorton clarified that as a veteran he disagreed with Ali’s politics, but he thought Ali deserved a chance to lose his title in a ring rather than a courtroom.
Leonard Levy, vice-chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority, declined to publicly reveal his personal feelings on Ali, but said: “If all regulatory bodies approve this, then who are we to say that they can’t use (Tampa Stadium)?”

Boxing and Wrestling Commission chairman Eddie Flynn, like Ali an Olympic gold medal-winning boxer, said he would be happy to see the fight happen. He cited an obligation to bondholders to help pay off debt on Tampa Stadium, while bringing sporting events to this area that would meet the public’s approval. The fight could almost certainly help accomplish the former, but not the latter.

The public backlash against the event started almost immediately.

Tampa City Council voted unanimously in opposition to any fight involving Ali, while acknowledging it had no legal recourse to stop the bout.

In his Tampa Tribune column, Tom McEwen accurately predicted that only public opinion could stop the fight from happening. The court of public opinion turned quickly and dramatically against the fight, and even previous supporters began running for cover.

Mayor Dick Greco carefully toed the line, initially saying that while he and others may disagree with Ali’s politics, that did not necessarily merit a reason to ban the fight. The following day, however, Greco became convinced from an overwhelming number of phone calls to his office that residents of this area would never approve of the fight. He also took much stronger stand, as well.

“As for me, I am bound by law and what’s legal,” he said, “but I would not myself buy a ticket that would help contribute to (Ali's) financial well-being, and I’m a boxing fan. I hope the sports authority and boxing commission, who are the only bodies with jurisdiction here, will give the matter serious thought.”

The Tampa Tribune, in an editorial entitled “We Object – Conscientiously,” cited a moral imperative in stopping the fight. The editorial also mocked Ali for claims that boxing violated the teachings of Islam, then suddenly changing heart based on a $300,000 fight guarantee.

Politicians throughout the state weighed in on the fight, which became a hot-button political issue because of the involvement of Florida Gov. Claude Kirk. The Republican governor made headlines early for his enthusiastic public endorsement of Tampa as host for the fight. In the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, both Republicans and Democrats took turns in denouncing Kirk and Ali.

U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Tampa) announced he was “personally repulsed by Ali and his willful failure to serve his country,” but that hosting the fight was a matter for locals to decide.

U.S. Rep William Cramer (R-St. Petersburg) called Kirk’s actions a “shocking disgrace,” while U.S. Rep. Paul Rogers (D-West Palm Beach) called Kirk’s actions “most unfortunate.”

“Ali’s convictions,” Rogers said, “demand that he not be granted a license anywhere.”

On the morning of December 11, the Tampa Sports Authority dashed Ali’s chances of fighting in Tampa by voting to deny Gorton’s request to rent Tampa Stadium. The Sports Authority cited the public good, as in protection of the facility and its attendees, as the primary reason for denying use of the Stadium. Frank Neff, a member of the special events committee, referenced riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention: “If we do not turn Ali down, we can expect a situation here that would make Chicago seem mild.”

By December 12, the once enthusiastic Kirk had changed his mind, too. Endorsing the fight proved to be a surprisingly bold – some might call reckless -- move politically for Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since 1877. Whatever his initial motives, be they political, financial or just a desire to see Frazier whip Ali in the ring, Kirk let Ali have it in a written statement.

“It comes as a surprise to me that a man who lacks the courage to fight for his country could have the guts to get into the ring," Kirk said. “I see no reason why an alleged draft dodger should be in a position to lay claim to any title.”

Without political cover from Kirk, any chances of the fight taking place in Florida were effectively over. Gorton tried wooing Orlando into hosting the fight, but that option encountered a public death too.

In the end, Tampa proved no different from the other cities and states during this period that refused to sanction Ali. Opposition to Ali the man – his beliefs, his values, his actions – overrode the sporting interest or financial windfalls such a fight would invariably produce.
McEwen called Ali a “protester in a time of protest.” The prevalent attitude in Tampa, as well, could be accurately seen as reflective of its time.

It would take 15 months before Ali and Frazier finally met in the ring, a bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden dubbed “The Fight of the Century.” Frazier retained his belt in a unanimous decision, an outcome that surely pleased Kirk, who had failed in his bid to win re-election the previous November.


  1. Some just love to live in the past; if not, why do they insist on churning it up every other minute? There must be a certain charm and comfort in reliving or living in the past.

  2. For me it's because I get paid to do it.

  3. Those that do not know where they came from cannot plan where they are going. Amazing how Ali is regarded as a hero today (and rightly so) yet was so reviled then. Politicos will politic - any way the wind blows...