Muhammad Ali—“The Greatest”?
Most of us are aware that Muhammad Ali (born as Cassius Clay) died on June 3, 2016, at the age of 73. We also are aware of his claim to be “the Greatest” and it would seem that millions of people acknowledge this self-designation.
Let’s notice something about this well-known contemporary boxer and discuss how we should look on him. We notice this explanation of Ali on a popular information site:
[Muhammad Ali was] an American professional boxer, widely regarded as one of the greatest and most significant sporting figures in history. From early in his career, Ali was known as an inspiring, controversial and polarizing figure both inside and outside the ring. (en.wikipedia. org/wiki/ Muhammad_Ali).
Ali (Clay) was born in Louisville, Kentucky and began training early in the violent sport of boxing. We probably know that this brutal and cruel activity was largely outlawed in the nineteenth century but it gained favor and eventually public acceptance as the years went by. By the time that Clay entered the sport, it was acceptable to many Americans.
Beginning to train at the young pre-teen age of 12 years, Clay amazingly won the world heavyweight championship (beating Sonny Liston) in 1964. Shortly after this achievement, Clay became a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad (after the originator of the religion) Ali. He “gave a message of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination” (Ibid.). Clay didn’t become part of the traditional Islam of the Middle East, but became a radical Black Muslim, a member of The Nation of Islam.
After his winning the coveted championship, Ali continued to lead a controversial life:
In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further antagonized the white establishment by refusing to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles. He successfully appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971. (Ibid.)
We find it interesting that Ali, as a rabid “Black Muslim,” used his religious beliefs to refuse induction into the military. Does it not seem incongruous for one known for his violence as well as his violent speech to object to war on his religious beliefs? We don’t question whether it is right to object to the military in light of teachings in the New Testament from Jesus (Matthew 5:38-48; 26:52) and the epistles (Romans 12:17-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; James 5:6), but how can it be that one known for extreme violence would object to the military?
We must remember that Ali was a Muslim, a religion that was known for aggression and bloodshed, thus it is not surprising that he was known for his boxing. Eventually he became a more traditional Muslim and no longer had as much anti-white bitterness. After this time, Ali continued his career:
Ali remains the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Between February 25, 1964, and September 19, 1964, Ali reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight, three with rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, in which he regained titles he had been stripped of seven years earlier. Ali retired from boxing in 1981. At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali, inspired by professional wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner, thrived in—and indeed craved—the spotlight, where he was often provocative and outlandish. (Ibid.)
Ali was known for his provocative, prideful, and boastful words. After being declared the winner over Liston in 1964, Ali proclaimed, with his well-known braggadocio: “I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.” (Ibid.)
After fighting for several years, Ali said that he was “retiring from boxing to practice his faith, having converted to Sunni Islam after falling out with the Nation of Islam the previous year (in 1975?). Actually, Ali continued until 1981 when he has his final fight.
Beginning in the 1970s, Ali showed signs of tremors. Finally, he “was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, a disease that sometimes results from head trauma from activities such as boxing.” According to one account, Ali estimated that he had taken 29,000 punches to his head, and this surely must have affected his health for the final decades of his life (“Ali: The ‘Greatest’ is Gone, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 5, 2016).
His final years were not good. One account has this:
In February 2013, Ali’s brother, Rahman Ali, said Muhammad could no longer speak and could be dead within days. Ali’s daughter, May May Ali, responded to the rumors, stating that she had talked to him on the phone the morning of February 3 and he was fine.
On December 20, 2014, Ali was hospitalized for a mild case of pneumonia. Ali was once again hospitalized on January 15, 2015, for a urinary tract infection after being found unresponsive at a guest house in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was released the next day.
Ali was hospitalized in Scottsdale in June 2016, with a respiratory illness. Though his condition was initially described as “fair”, his condition worsened and he died the following day, aged 74. His death was attributed to septic shock. (Wikipedia)
Another revealing quotation has this:
Parkinson’s robbed him of his speech. It took such a toll on his body that the sight of him in his latter years–trembling, his face frozen, the man who invented the Ali Shuffle now barely able to walk–shocked and saddened those who remembered him in his prime (FW Star-Telegram, June 5, 2016).
What a lesson for those who assume that they will be able-bodied all of their life and feel self-importance that will never end.
Comments and Observations
Many thoughts come to mind as we read over Ali’s life. From a Christian standpoint, these comments are significant.
- Although Ali began as a Methodist and then went with the Baptists, he soon went to the Nation of Islam, a radical black form of the Muslim religion. In time, he went to traditional Islam, the religion that he was part of the remainder of his life. Sadly, Ali never knew the salvation that God freely gives through Jesus Christ and His redemptive death on the cross and His resurrection three days later. We know that Jesus is the only way to God in heaven (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), but sadly Ali only new a false religion all of his life. All of his adult life and up until the end, Ali was a Muslim and rejected Jesus as the crucified and risen Son of God! Further, Ali became somewhat of a missionary or ambassador for Islam, and traveled around the world to promote this anti-Christ religion.
2. Ali was known for his super ego or his tremendous pride. His whole life was one of boasting of his position, his power, and his abilities. We are reminded of how Nebuchadnezzar boasted of his position and his accomplishments in the city of Babylon, but God humbled him to the extent that he repented (Daniel 4). Ali also was known for his unlimited pride and boasting, and the time came when he even lost his ability to think and speak because of Parkinson’s Disease.
Recently the story is told by James Robison who visited Ali in California. Robison went to Ali’s door and they greeted. Ali immediately said, emphatically, “I am the most famous person in the world.” Robison wrote, “His boldness knocked me back, but I responded, ‘I thinki you’re right.'” “‘I am the most famous person in the world,’ Ali said again, with even greater emphasis. ‘I’m more famous than the president. I’m more famous than the pope. I’m more famous than Billy Graham. I am the most famous person in the world.'” (“Robison’s Amazing Encounter with Ali,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 6, 2016). Ali was not known for his humility! Yet Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). Peter also reminds us: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5b). Ali didn’t seem to know that God was “opposed” to him because of his huge problem with the sin of pride and boasting.
3. Ali was a tall, muscular, skillful, and strong boxer, thus was able to defeat previous champions in the boxing ring. Of course, this contributed to his ego-mania. But the sport of his choice and the repeated hits to his head and body took its toll. It reduced this once-superior athlete to humiliating dependency. The last of his life was one of mere existence. This is a reminder that “our outer man is decaying” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Our physical body is wearing out and will be gone in a few short years. The once-vibrant and powerful body of Ali became a weak body that merely existed.
4. Although Ali was praised by millions and traveled the world because of his sport, what is important is what God thinks of our endeavors. Was God pleased with Ali’s false religion, his outrageous pride, his incessant boasting, his focus on the physical, and his earlier ethnic prejudice against the white man? It is important for us to remember that even when one is applauded by many, it is what God thinks that counts. “God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
5. It is important to remember that Ali, at one time, believed and taught segregation. He wanted nothing to do with the “white man.” He was a radical member of the “Black Muslims” that promoted violence, even though he seemed to always have some whites around him. When he left the Black Muslims to the more traditional Islamic faith, his radical anti-white rhetoric and stance changed. He could see that all people from different ethnic backgrounds could become Muslims.
6. It is interesting for us to remember that the crowds are often wrong. Ali’s face appeared on Sports Illustrated dozens of times, a main street was named after him in Louisville, and he received numerous awards over his lifetime. It seemed that the earlier opposition to him subsided and at least some of his foes seemed to praise him, often in support of his life and work. We must remember that the majority is often wrong, as in this case.
7.Ali was married four different times and he also had children from women who were not his wife. This is evidence that one can be a devoted and passionate Muslim and yet live an extremely immoral life. Again, although someone like Ali might be praised by millions of faithful followers, we must always ask whether God is pleased without life and actions. God has made it clear that He will judge the adulterer and fornicator (Hebrews 13:4). No adulterer or fornicator will be able to enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
8. We can learn that money isn’t everything. It is said that Ali made about $57 million in his lifetime, through the promotion of his boxing skills and winning proceeds, but much of this was gone by the time he died at age 74. Money will often (or always) lead one away from God. “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9).
9. Another point worthy of noting is that we should never elevate a person to the level of godhood. No one should receive our unlimited praise and adoration. Gene Kilroy said about Ali, “If I was to die today and go to heaven it would be a step down. My heaven was being with Ali” (FW Star-Telegram, June 5, 2016). No, Ali was not heaven and cannot be compared with being in heaven! He was a fallible and sinful person, unworthy of our trust and admiration. Let’s worship God and Him alone (Matthew 4:10). Anything else is pure idolatry!
10. Not only did Ali boast about himself and his accomplishments, but his mean and cruel streak came through his words. He said, “I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.” “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I just beat people up.” “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” Probably his mean streak propelled him to boxing when he was young, but evidently the boxing also promoted a mean and belligerent attitude through his life.
Let’s learn from Muhammad Ali’s attitude and life. Let’s learn our lessons well so that we won’t fall into the same trap he fell into.
As the world applauds Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Clay), lets remind ourselves that it is only God’s judgment that counts. People will pass away, but God our Judge, the eternal Creator and Sustainer, will continue and will judge the one who remains in his sins. Jesus Christ died for my sins, for your sins, and for Muhammad Ali’s sins, but only those who repent and trust in the Lord Jesus (expressing this in the meaningful act of baptism) will be forgiven of all sin (see John 3:16-18, 36; 5:24; Acts 2:38-39; 22:16; Romans 5:6-11; 6:1-11).
Jesus Christ alone is Savior!