A big part of Muhammad Ali’s life story is about what happened when he took a stand and refused to be drafted during the war in Vietnam.
This is a story about a boxer who did go to war.
Robert Carmody wasn’t a heavyweight slugger. He didn’t have Ali’s size or charisma, and his voice squeaked when he spoke.
But Bob Carmody could fight.
Carmody got into enough scraps while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany in the late 1950s that he was eventually taken into the Army boxing program. Once there, he blossomed, fighting all across Europe.
He was good enough to make the 1964 Olympic team, all 5-foot-2 and 112 pounds of him. Good enough that the heavyweight on the team, a fighter by the name of Joe Frazier , took a particular liking to him.
”He had quick hands, very fast,” said Ken Adams, who fought Carmody twice when both were in the Army and would later become the coach of the U.S. Olympic boxing team in 1988. ”We called him The Moose. Robert `The Moose’ Carmody.”
The war in Vietnam was just heating up when the U.S. team headed to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. There were 23,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam by the end of the year, and 216 had died. America was just coming to terms with the growing war, and those in the service were beginning to realize the country most had never heard of before was a place they might end up.
Carmody won his spot on the Olympic team with an upset win in the finals of the qualifying at the New York World’s Fair. There were high hopes for the U.S. team, which had won three boxing gold medals four years earlier in Rome, including one by a brash young light heavyweight named Cassius Clay.
Frazier, who died in 2011, got his spot on the team only after Buster Mathis hurt his hand in training before going to Japan. Soon a bond developed between the big heavyweight and the smallest fighter on the team.
”He’s the kind of guy you really need,” Frazier said of Carmody in a 2006 ESPN.com interview ”I had some hard times, things was rough, but he was a guy that helped you out a lot. I loved him like a brother.”
Frazier would go on to win the only gold medal for the U.S. that Olympics, defeating Germany’s Hans Huber, a 30-year-old bus driver from Bavaria, in the finals. Frazier had stopped his previous three opponents – a sign of things to come as a pro – before winning a decision over the cautious Huber.
Carmody didn’t make it quite so far, though as usual in Olympic boxing, inept judging seemed to get in the way. The sergeant from Paterson, New Jersey, lost a questionable split decision in the semifinals to Italy’s Fernando Atzori, who would go on to win the flyweight gold medal.
Carmody went home with a bronze , but did not turn pro, content with the security of being in the Army. He became a coach instead, assigned to teach boxing in Iraq. He was supposed to become assistant coach of the Army boxing team in February 1968.
”Robert was a fun guy, just a strong Italian dude,” Adams said. ”He got along well with everybody. Just a funny guy with a little squeaky voice.”
By June 1967 the war in Vietnam was in full bore. Protests were raging at home, but nearly a half million U.S. troops were in Southeast Asia. The constant need to replace them eventually led to the call up of Carmody and his unit for duty overseas.
By then, Carmody had been in the Army almost a full decade. But with much of it spent in boxing camps and tournaments, he got little training in combat like most others in the unit.
Gene Kilroy, who would later become Ali’s business manager, was Carmody’s friend. He pulled some strings among his friends in Washington, D.C., to try and keep Carmody out of the war, but the fighter was having none of it.
If his friends in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade were going, so was he.
He shipped out on the day his only son was born. Three weeks later the staff sergeant was leading a patrol near Saigon in search of infiltrators when they heard Viet Cong nearby about 9:15 the night of Oct. 26, 1967.
Twenty minutes later, the six soldiers were attacked by a force using grenades, small arms and claymore mines. The 29-year-old Carmody and four others were killed.
Frazier attended Carmody’s funeral, as did Kilroy. Four years later, Frazier would fight Ali in the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden, the first of a trilogy of fights that will live in boxing lore.
Adams, who won one of his fights against Carmody and lost the other, would end up spending 30 years in the Army, including a tour of duty of his own in Vietnam. He coached the U.S. Olympic team in 1988, a squad that included Roy Jones Jr. and Riddick Bowe.
Adams tried to emulate Ali’s style as a boxer, though he quickly found out there was only one Ali. He followed the news closely when Ali refused induction in the Armed Forces in April 1967 and was convicted of draft dodging in July, just a few months before Carmody was killed.
”I did get angry with him when he didn’t go into the Army,” Adams said. ”Who did he think he was not going into the Army while at the same time making money off the American people?”
A few years later, though, Adams said his view began to change. Ali was a Muslim minister, after all, and ministers weren’t required to go to war.
”Later in life you start thinking about it and you say, `Wait a minute, he was right,”’ Adams said. ”He lost his career and was out for a long time. He’s to be commended for taking a stand.”
It was a stand that kept him out of war, while another boxer paid the ultimate price.
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