“I shook up the world.”
Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, after winning heavyweight boxing championship from Sonny Liston (February 25, 1964)
The death earlier this month, at age 74, of Muhammad Ali, self-proclaimed and often recognized as “The Greatest,” stirred memories of the life and legacy of the longtime heavyweight boxing champion.
Although he never fought professionally in Minnesota, he came here on occasion. One of his visits included speaking on college campuses against the Vietnam War during his exile from professional boxing due to his refusal, as a conscientious objector on religious grounds, to be drafted into the military. He also appeared at a heavyweight boxing championship in 1980, but not as a pugilist. Rather, he was here engaging in promotional activities for the fight at the Met Center between Ali’s successor, Larry Holmes, and Minnesota’s own contender, Scott LeDoux. A mismatch won on technical knock-out by Holmes when the referee stopped the bout in the seventh round.
LeDoux went on, after his retirement, to become a key member of the Minnesota Boxing Commission, a state agency that regulated professional fighting in this jurisdiction and later headed the state’s Combat Sports Commission, which had even broader authority over competitive martial arts. Like Ali, who had Parkinson’s disease for more than three decades, LeDoux was plagued with a debilitating illness, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which caused his death age 62 in 2011.
Decision in D.C.
Many say that Ali’s greatest fight, and victory, came in the courtroom. Unlike the epic “Fight of the Century,” which Ali lost to Joe Frazier, upon his return from exile, or the “Rumble in the Jungle,” in which Ali wrested the heavyweight title for the second time from George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 or the “Thrilla in Manila,” a year later, in which he successfully defended his championship in a rubber match with his storied adversary, Frazier, in the Philippines, Ali’s major bout took place in the District of Columbia. It was there that the Supreme Court, at the end of its 1970-71 term, 45 years ago this week, overturned Ali’s conviction for draft evasion in Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971). The high court, in a per curiam decision, unanimously reversed his conviction by an all-white jury in Houston, Texas, for refusing induction into the military at the height of the Vietnam War, which he opposed, and sought exemption as a Muslim on religious conscientious objection grounds. All eight justices of the court (Thurgood Marshal, the first African-American jurist, recused himself because of his role as an associate general for the Department of Justice while the case was being prosecuted) agreed that Ali’s conviction was improper because the draft authorities did not specify the reason for denying his requested exemption. The lack of specificity violated a long-standing legal principal that the justices regarded as “essential to the administration of criminal justice.”
The “Decision in D.C.” marked the turning point in Ali’s life and his boxing career. It set aside his five-year sentence and also allowed him to resume his career, which he had hesitantly relaunched with a pair of winning bouts before the memorable “Fight of the Century,” his first bout with Frazier. But after the D.C. decision, he regained the title twice, first against George Foreman in the Zaire joust and later from Leon Spinks in a rematch after a surprising upset loss a few years later.
Interestingly, Ali almost was outpointed in his D.C. case. The high court reportedly was prepared to vote 5-3 against him, but Justice John Harlan, a conservative justice and strong law-and-order supporter, reportedly was persuaded of the righteousness of Ali’s cause by one of his law clerks and the aging jurist convinced his colleagues to give the decision to Ali. This tale, which has been substantiated, is just another part of Ali’s legend and lore.
Meanwhile, the sport of professional prize fighting has waxed and waned in Minnesota before and during Ali’s days. Some of the fighting has taken place in the courtrooms in this state. Prize fighting was legally banned in the late 19th century. The ban was lifted by legislation in 1950, although there were many “sneak” fights in the interim, featuring high-caliber pugilists from Minnesota and elsewhere, often with the complicit permission of the authorities who looked the other way.
Once legalized, boxing became a major sport in this state for many years and produced many leading contenders and even a few champions, along with many memorable bouts. Ali’s passing provides an opportunity to recall the legal lore of some of the fights that took place in the courtrooms in the state.
A pair of courtroom fights between the boxing manager and his pugilist protégé more than 70 years ago addressed a number of common law doctrines that still ring true today. In Safro v. Lakofsky, 238 N.W.2d 641 (1931), a boxer fought his way out of contract that gave his manager 25 percent cut of his commission over a five-year span. The Hennepin County District Court judge enjoined the boxer from terminating the deal, but the Supreme Court reversed.
The fighter’s claim that the contract was illegal because it violated an old statute on the books barring prize fighting in Minnesota was rejected because the state had created an athletic commission by that time, authorizing professional prize fighting.
Viewing the arrangement as an employment contract, the court applied the rule that generally bars forcing an employee to work for an employer in the absence of “special skill or qualification.” Because the boxer lacked such “peculiar skill or prowess, the manager would not be irreparably damaged if [the fighter] breaches the contract” and “will have no difficulty in finding other fighters to manage.”
But the battle was not over. The boxer beat back another challenge by the manager for a share of the fighter’s purses after the fighter had bolted from the management contract, which generated an appeal by the manager to the Supreme Court. The manager, again, was defeated, but not without a twist. While he had been barred from obtaining an injunction because the arrangement was viewed as an “employment contract,” this time the court reversed its position and viewed the arrangement as “not one of employment,” which precluded any relief. Looking at the contract “anew,” the tribunal now saw it as a joint enterprise rather than an employment relationship and “very little … of a contract of employment.” Because it was a joint enterprise, the manager was not entitled to a cut of any of the boxer’s proceeds after their arrangement ended.
Friendships have fueled boxing-related litigation feuds, as well. In Stevens v. Levy, 440 N.W.2d 89 (Minn. 1989), a pair of companies that worked together to secure the license for the closed-circuit broadcast in Minnesota and several surrounding states of the heavyweight championship boxing match between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks fought over proceeds of the event.
While Tyson won the bout in 91 seconds, the litigation lasted a lot longer. The Hennepin County District Court judge preliminarily attached the proceeds for one of the claimants, conditionally vacated it upon the posting by the other party of a $50,000 bond.
The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the trial judge erred in allowing the attachment to remain in place, even though neither party could post a bond. The case was remanded to allow the claimant to post a bond within a reasonable time or the attachment of the proceeds would be vacated and released to the cable television companies “from which the funds were initially taken.”
A street fight involving a pro-boxer was addressed in State v. Basting, 572 N.W.2d 281 (Minn. 1997). A veteran pugilist hit his ex-wife’s boyfriend in the face twice during an altercation near the ex-spouse’s home. The fighter was found guilty in Ramsey County District Court of several assault charges, including use of a dangerous weapon, consisting of his fists, under Minn. Stat. sec. 609.222, subd. 1, due to his prize fighting prowess.
The Court of Appeals, however, refused the “dangerous weapon” conviction while upholding the other charges. It reasoned that while it is “well-settled in Minnesota that under some circumstances, a fist or foot may constitute a dangerous weapon, this case presents a stark contrast” because the assault was of only momentary duration and the fighters were of approximately equal height and weight, the event took place in a moment of confusion and the injured participant “did not require extensive hospitalization, nor was he rendered incapacitated.” However, the court rejected the boxer’s claim of “self-defense” because there was conflicting testimony as to who initiated the assault.
Boxing promoters, who often have overlapped with sponsorship of professional wrestling bouts, also have occasionally encountered legal warfare.
In Ulrich v. Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club, Inc.,129 N.W.2d 288 (1964), an aged spectator at a professional wrestling match sued a referee and promoter for injuries sustained when he was struck by the referee, who was moving from the ring to the dressing room after a match. The Freeborn County District Court jury awarded $20,000 to the fan, but the Supreme Court reversed.
The wrestling program was not culpable because the incident occurred after the spectator grabbed the referee and the promoter had “no duty to keep [the spectator] from touching the referee.” While the promoter could be vicariously liable if the referee was acting within the scope of his employment, the jury was not asked to determine whether there was an employer-employee relationship after the match ended and the referee left the mat. Therefore, the decision was reversed and remanded to determine if the referee was acting in the course of his employment at the time of the incident.
In Ross v. City of Minneapolis,408 N.W.2d 910 (Minn. Ct. 1987), another fan at a wrestling match was physically assaulted by a fellow spectator as he was leaving the auditorium after the event ended. The promoter and the injured spectator, who lost his right eye, entered into a Miller-Schugart settlement of $500,000, recoverable only against the promoter’s insurer, which denied liability based upon an exclusion of policy for assault and battery.
A Hennepin County District Court judge ruled in favor of the spectator, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It held that the “plain language of the policy … clearly excludes from coverage any claims arising out of an assault or battery.”
A settlement paid to an injured wrestler as a workers’ compensation claim before the grappler filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy was exempt from bankruptcy proceedings in Gagne v. Christian, 172 B.R.50 (D. Minn. 1994). The bankruptcy court had denied an exemption, but U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis reversed, ruling as a matter of “first impression in Minnesota,” that workers’ compensation benefits received prior to filing a bankruptcy petition are exempt under Minn. Stat. sec. 167.175, subd. 2. Because workers’ compensation was enacted for providing a measure of security for basic needs, the statutory exemption for any claim for compensation owned by an injured employee applies to the pre-petition settlement.
There has even been a Minnesota case with a familiar sounding name intriguingly titled Ali v. Frazier. But it had nothing to do with pugilism.
The case involved an immigration-related fight over an effort by a Muslim seeking to expedite his proceeding to become a naturalized citizen in the United States. U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Schlitz dismissed most of the claims, but allowed the case under the Federal Administrative Procedures Act, 5U.S.C. sec. 706(1), based on the “ongoing delay” by the government, which was not reasonable as a matter of law. 575 F.Supp. 1084 (D. Minn. 2008).
Ali’s “shook up the world” comment, after winning the heavyweight championship as an 8-1 underling against fearsome Sonny Liston years later, was appropriated by another familiar face, Jesse Ventura, a Minnesotan who also knew his way inside and outside the ring. After his upset election for governor in 1998, he declared: “We shocked the world.”
People around the world have been lionizing Ali following his death three weeks ago. The treatment accorded him in death is a representation of his rich role as a figure of truly international importance beyond boxing.
Some Minnesotans who lost to heavy weight champs
Billy Miskie: Beaten by Jack Dempsey (1920).
Tommy Gibbons: Lost to Jack Dempsey (1923).
Harry Greb: Defeated by Gene Tunney (1925).
Tommy Gibbons (again):Knocked out by Gene Tunney (1925).
Scott LeDoux : TKO lost to Larry Holmes (1980).
Originally Published by Minnesota Lawyer