For several years in the late Sixties, while (largely) lesser fighters vied for the heavyweight title and while his great nemesis Joe Frazier was powering his way through the ranks, Muhammad Ali was effectively in exile. Barred from the prizefighting ring for refusing induction into the Army ("War is against the teachings of the Koran," he said. "I'm not trying to dodge the draft [but] we don't take part in Christian wars."), the man Norman Mailer called "the Prince of Heaven" sought other outlets for his energy, other venues in which his personality could be given free rein.
He spoke at colleges and universities — and was often greeted as a hero on campuses where anti-war sentiment was strong, and growing. But the one thing Ali never did was regret the decision and the actions that exiled him from boxing and kept the all-but-certain rewards — the riches, the adoring crowds, the glory — temporarily out of reach. He did not cast blame. He did not sulk. Fascinating, then, to imagine how that time will characterized in the Stephen Frears-directed docudrama, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, bowing Oct. 5 on HBO.
In the meantime, Pete Hamill's account of a title-stripped Ali in New York, from an Oct. 1968 profile in LIFE magazine, captures something of the once and future champ's at-once down-home and regal air:
He came down West Fifty-Second Street, humming a song in the cold evening air, walking with the cold, bright swagger of a champion. . . . It had been 19 months since anyone had seen him do what he does better than anyone on earth — fight in a prize ring. On this evening in New York, it was as if he had never been away.
"Hey! There's Cassius Clay!" a black girl said.
"Muhammad Ali, girl," her boyfriend said. "Muhammad Ali. He changed his name, girl."
People stepped out of a steak house to watch him go by. Auto horns beeped in salute. A middle-aged lady asked him to autograph her newspaper.
"Lookit me," he said softly. "Bigger than ever. Bigger than boxing. As big as all history!"
He was loose and smiling and boyishly handsome. . . . It was as if nothing had ever happened to him that was ugly or malignant; as if no congressman had ever used his name in hatred, no anonymous editorial writer had savaged him, no draft board had ruled on his religious beliefs, no timid boxing commission had taken away that title which no one could take from him in the ring. . . . [He] was like the Cassius Clay of 1960 who had yet to learn that America could still strike down an "uppity" black man. . . .
And yet Ali does not seem bitter. "I'm happy," he said, "'cause I'm free. I've made the stand all black people are gonna have to make sooner or later — whether or not they can stand up to the master."
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly (and occasionally more frequent) feature for The Stacks.
Photo: Bob Gomel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images