Cassius Clay, who celebrates his 70th birthday today, changed his name, the sport that regards him as "The Greatest" and a piece of the nation's legal history.
Better known as Muhammad Ali, the graceful bruiser also gets more mention for epic fights like with Joe Frazier in the "Thrilla in Manilla" than for his drawn-out legal battle that ended with the Supreme Court case, Clay, aka Ali v. United States.
But it happened — Ali's case to be kept out of the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Local lawyers who met or worked with Ali said the case, which showed his staunch beliefs, not only changed America's legal history, but marked a turning point in his career arc.
A military law professor said Ali became the last member of a recognized, peaceful religion to face draft evasion charges. And his public figure status forced the courts to address this issue.
Eldon L. Ham, a sports attorney and adjunct professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, said he remembers listening to an Ali fight on the radio as a 12-year-old with his father, a Golden Gloves boxer.
"I remember the mood of the country and the perception of Ali, who at that time was Cassius Clay, was that he was sort of a loud-mouthed, crazy radical," said Ham, who represented Ali in a 1990 deal to pitch NFL gear.
Ali's willingness to speak his mind and fight for his beliefs manifested in his anti-war legal battle, Ham said.
Ali refused in 1967 to be drafted into the armed forces. His local draft board "denied his application for conscientious objector classification," the Supreme Court decision says.
Ali then stated his case in front of a Department of Justice (DOJ) hearing officer. The officer recommended to the DOJ that Ali should be granted conscientious objector status, the decision says.
But in a letter sent to the Selective Service System (SSS), the DOJ said Ali should be denied conscientious objector status.
The letter insinuated that Ali failed to meet any of the three tests required to be kept from war as a conscientious objector, the Supreme Court decision says. Those tests are: "(A registrant) must show that he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form ... He must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief ... And he must show that this objection is sincere."
A local SSS appeal board, following the DOJ's letter, denied Ali's petition and convicted him of draft evasion, the high court decision says. But the appeal board did not state which part of the conscientious objector test he failed.
The Supreme Court decided that the appeal board made an error by not specifying which part of the test Ali failed. Following a similar case, Sicurella v. United States, the court reversed the appeal board's ruling, stating it could not determine on what grounds the board based its decision.
While he eventually earned a victory in the court, Ali lost his ability to fight in the U.S. soon after he chose to abstain from the war. New York state pulled his boxing license in 1967, Ham said.
"There's no national governing body for boxing, and virtually every state followed New York's lead," Ham said. "So he couldn't fight in any state. He wasn't allowed to earn a living."
Ali got back in the ring in 1970. Although he beat George Foreman in the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire, Ham said the three years Ali spent out of the ring hurt his career.
"I don't think he ever got back to the level he was at before," Ham said.
Michael I. Spak, a military law professor at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, said Ali's ruling set a precedent in conscientious objector cases.
"I have never seen another case of a recognized religion being prosecuted," Spak said, adding that Ali "really got a raw deal, and I think a lot of it was racism."
Spak said he believed Ali's anti-war claims, but he can see why some might find his pacifist views hard to believe.
"Here's a man who says, 'I'm the strongest man in the world. I try to kill people in the ring. And yet, I'm not going to fight.' ... I can understand as a matter of public policy why it was done," Spak said.
He said Ali's case fit into a Vietnam-era cottage industry for lawyers.
"There were a lot of lawyers in Chicago whose full-time job (in the Vietnam era) was keeping people out of the service," Spak said.
Douglas N. Masters, co-chair of the intellectual property practice at Loeb & Loeb LLP, said he represents the company that markets Ali's IP rights. He met Ali about four years ago.
Masters said Ali's set of values and beliefs shows up in what he chooses to license or lend his trademarks to.
"He has never been somebody who was just going to lend his name to make a buck," Masters said. "He wouldn't lend his name to alcohol and wouldn't do anything with certain kinds of foods.
"It's more like charitable things or things that he believes in as a cause."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.