In honor of Veterans Day, some thoughts on the heavyweight champions and military service—a topic richer than you might think.
The two heavyweight champions with the proudest service records are Gene Tunney and Joe Louis. Tunney served in France with the Marines during World War I, an experience that gave him his somewhat odd nickname: The Fighting Marine (is there another kind)? Tunney served with the 11th Marine Regiment, which, to his and others’ dismay, never got to the front but were instead relegated to the Services of Supply. He started boxing seriously in France, and went on to win the American Expeditionary Forces light heavyweight title, launching his pro career. Right up to his last fight, in 1928, Tunney entered the ring wearing a robe with the Marine insignia on the back. Tunney also served in World War II, as a captain in the Navy, in charge of physical fitness. How important all this was to him is clear on his gravestone, which omits the fact that he was once heavyweight champion of the world and notes instead his service in two great wars.
Tunney was an unknown young man when he joined the Marines in 1918; Joe Louis was heavyweight champion when he enlisted in the armed forces after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He had a low lottery number and knew he’d be called, one way or the other; he was offered a commission, in fact, but felt that he lacked the education to be an officer. He wanted to be with the rank-and-file types. He didn’t see combat, serving primarily in a morale role, in which he boxed nearly 100 exhibitions before about 2 million American troops, on one condition: that black and white troops not be segregated when they watched. He inspired millions when he said that America would win the war “because we are on God’s side,” but a more earthbound remark that Louis made during the war reflects a wisdom born of common sense. When asked how he could suit up for a country that still denied blacks full rights, he replied: “There’s nothing wrong with America that Hitler can fix.”
During World War II, other past champions—including Max Baer and James J. Braddock—also wound up in uniform for the United States, as did future champions, like Ezzard Charles, who served in Italy, and Rocky Marciano, who served in Wales. But two titans of heavyweight history—Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali—declined to serve in the defining wars of their era.
Dempsey, then in his early 20s, got a deferment from military service during World War I, claiming that he was the sole support for his wife, parents, and a widowed sister with children. He was telling the truth, but of course many thousands of other men in the United States could have made similar claims, and Dempsey’s deferment request surely had to do as well with his boxing ambitions. Uninterrupted by military service, his career took off, and he positioned himself for a shot at the heavyweight title after the war was over. After winning the championship, though, he ran into trouble, when his spurned ex-wife claimed that he had fabricated his deferment claims and failed to support her. Dempsey was indicted for draft dodging and put on trial, though he was swiftly acquitted. Still, the allegation of being a “slacker”—a term that, back then, amounted to calling someone half a man—followed Dempsey for the rest of his career, during which he was often booed by fight crowds.
Ali refused induction into the armed forces in 1967, during the Vietnam War, claiming to be a conscientious objector as a minister of the Nation of Islam. That claim didn’t pass muster with the U.S. Justice Department, however, since it was clear that the Nation’s objection to the war was political, not moral, and since Ali himself had said that he would fight in any war that Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader, ordered him to fight; moral opposition to all wars is a key condition of conscientious-objector status. Ali was swiftly convicted of draft evasion, a felony. He appealed, and the case wound through the courts for several years. Meantime, however, boxing commissions took matters into their own hands and stripped Ali of his heavyweight title, barring him from boxing in the process—gross violations of his right to earn a living while he remained free. Eventually, he was reinstated, and the Supreme Court overturned his conviction on a technicality.
Once regarded as villains, Dempsey and Ali ended their lives as two of the most beloved champions in boxing history. But it’s striking how different their paths to acceptance were. For Dempsey, forgiveness had several ingredients: the passage of time, allowing some of the bitterness toward him to dissipate; his loss of the title in 1926, which humanized him; and, as a capstone, his volunteering for military service in World War II, at 47 years of age. He served in the Coast Guard and came ashore at Okinawa after the fighting ended. It’s hard to see Dempsey’s enlistment as anything other than an act of atonement. And yet, he would still write, years later, of the slacker accusations: “It never will be over, in my own heart.” But he had been forgiven, in part because of what he had done to earn forgiveness.
For Ali, the trajectory was different. Whereas for Dempsey, non-service was an obstacle to his acceptance, for Ali, refusing service became an integral aspect of his legend and cultural significance. Rather than a burden of his legacy, it became its lodestar. Ali did not seek America’s forgiveness; if anything, America sought his—a remarkable cultural transformation. How one sees all this depends very much, of course, on how one views Ali’s story.
Whatever your view, the Dempsey/Ali episodes reflect not just two very different men making their choices for very different reasons, but also doing so in very different Americas.
Happy Veterans Day to all who served, and serve, the United States.