On Ali vs. the Athletic Commission: A Quick Archives Story

When you’re elbows-deep in file folders after jumping down the legislative research rabbit hole, the greatest boxer of all time is the last person you’d expect to find while looking for a wrestler lost to time.

That’s what happened one cold Saturday morning this past winter at the New York State Archives. I was pouring through the State Athletic Commission’s minutes from  the June 1967 meeting. The push for the legalization of women’s wrestling in New York State was picking up as that aging morality board disguised as a combat sport regulator was pushing against the rising tides of equality and modernity. This was the meeting at which the Commission discussed and rejected woman wrestler Silvia Calzadilla’s application for a professional wrestling license.

At that very same meeting — on the very next page in the minutes, right after Calzadilla’s rejection — the Commission brought up the revokation of Muhammad Ali’s boxing license.

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One minute you’re all “Grrrr… anti-woman nonsense!!” and the next “WTF is this? Grrrr…. racist war-mongers!!!! /sarcasm (New York State Athletic Commission meeting minutes, June 1967; New York State Archives)

Much like a hook to the liver, I was not expecting that. It was like BOOM!

Holy crap. There’s Muhammad Ali losing his license.

Then I had a question in my head: Why did the Commission make these decisions?

In short, Calzadilla was denied access to the ring because she was a woman. Ali was denied access to the ring because he was a black man who would not do what the government told him to do. Both pushed against the status quo. Both fought the law. And both were denied because the Commission felt their presence in the ring — the female and the objector — would be an affront to the morals of good society and reflect poorly upon the image of boxing.

“Detrimental to the best interest of boxing,” in fact.

That sounds so stupid. Wait.

What?

What does a woman wrestler in a predetermined professional wrestling exhibition have to do with boxing?

Plenty. If they let a woman wrestle, they’d have to let a woman box. And the public would be against it. Quelle horreur!!!

NYSAC_1965_1-15.2 copy
“Can’t let these gals fake fight or else those uppity broads will think they can punch each other for real. And what would someone elses father say?!!” /sarcasm (New York Athletic Commission meeting minutes, January 1965; New York State Archives)

Oh my god, these people. I’d have lost my damned mind arguing with people like this 24/7 if I’d been around in the mid-60s. But back to Ali.

Ever the fighter, he fought for reinstatement. The Commission fought, too, and lost. A US District Court decreed that the Commission violated Ali’s rights by taking away his license and forced them to reinstate him in 1970. The Commission’s executive files for this period are, sadly, missing (see here for more on that). There’s no way to know if their loss was, at the time, viewed internally as a swift KO they were unable to see coming or a bitter return to the corner after the ref waved off the fight.

I was really happy to find this in the New York State Archives. I don’t know what made me happier: seeing Ali’s name in the files in front of me or find Harold Lederman‘s approval as a Commission boxing judge. Archives make me happy. They might not have everything, but what they do have — even if you don’t know where or how you’ll find it — is priceless.

 

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