Muhammed Ali, one of the world’s best known sports figures, died last week at the age of 74.
After his passing, many broadcasters, athletes, government leaders and entertainers lined up to pay their respects. Ali had famously shouted “I am the Greatest” after winning the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston in 1964.
The Sunday after Muhammed Ali’s passing, I spoke at a church in Oregon about what the Bible says about being the greatest.
So what is God’s take on Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali? Was he really the “greatest” and worthy of our adoration and imitation?”
I have to admit that as a young man, I was fascinated by both boxing and Mohammed Ali’s rise to become the heavyweight champion of the world.
But when he died last week, I was greatly saddened by the lack of honest critique of his life, accomplishments and role in history. It’s as if every celebrity and commentator wanted to get on the bandwagon of nostalgia and simply declare him “the Greatest” without any reference to his character or influence.
I will not make that mistake today.
But first, a little history on what I consider the tragic life Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali who was one of the most recognizable sports figures of our time.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. He was named in honor of the 19th-century Republican politician and staunch abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay. His father painted billboards and signs, and his mother was a housewife. Although Cassius Sr. was a Methodist, he allowed his wife to bring up both Cassius and his younger brother as Baptists.
We don’t know how deep his faith went, though he commented in his autobiography:
“My mother is a Baptist, and when I was growing up, she taught me all she knew about God. Every Sunday, she dressed me up, took me and my brother to church, and taught us the way she thought was right. She taught us to love people and treat everybody with kindness. She taught us it was wrong to be prejudiced or hate. I’ve changed my religion and some of my beliefs since then, but her God is still God; I just call him by a different name.”
He was first directed toward boxing by a Louisville police officer and boxing coach who encountered the 12-year-old fuming over a thief taking his bicycle. He told the officer he was going to “whup” the thief. The officer told him he had better learn how to box first.
Clay made his amateur boxing debut in 1954. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union national title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Italy.
Young Cassius Clay was feisty, mouthy, and a very good boxer.
Clay made his professional debut on October 29, 1960, winning a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. From then until the end of 1963, Clay amassed a record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout. In each of these fights, he vocally belittled his opponents and vaunted his abilities. He called Jones “an ugly little man” and Cooper a “bum”. Madison Square Garden was “too small for me.” Clay’s self-centered behavior provoked the disdain of many boxing fans.
By late 1963, he was the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title. The fight was set for February 25, 1964. Clay was a 7–1 underdog. Despite this, he taunted Liston during the pre-fight buildup, dubbing him “the big ugly bear”. “Liston even smells like a bear”, Clay said. “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” Clay turned the pre-fight weigh-in into a circus, shouting at Liston that “someone is going to die at ringside tonight”.
The outcome of the fight was a huge upset. In the sixth round, Cassius Clay dominated, hitting Liston repeatedly. Liston did not answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay was declared the winner. Following the win, a triumphant Clay rushed to the edge of the ring and, pointing to the ringside press, shouted: “I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
He went on to fight for another 16 years, losing the heavyweight title on two occasions and winning it back. Famous fights included his matches with Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Conversion to Islam
Soon after becoming heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay came under the influence of Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam, converted to the Muslim faith and changed his name to Muhammed Ali. Elijah Mohammed was an evil man–the Osama bin Laden of the day. He was responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and extracted much of Ali’s boxing wealth to advance radical Islam in America.
Ali changed from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam in 1975. He went on pilgrimage to Mecca on two occasions–in 1972 and 1988. By 2005, Ali had become more “spiritual” than religious. He embraced Sufi Islam, which means “wisdom”, and is not classified as a religion. In his later life, Ali continued to try and convert others to Islam, but he spent more time doing charity work. His daughter Hana explained:
“It was important for him to be very religious and take the stands he did in earlier years. It was a different time. He still tries to convert people to Islam, but it’s not the same. His health and his spirituality have changed, and it’s not so much about being religious, but about going out and making people happy, doing charity, and supporting people and causes.”
Mohammed Ali also became America’s most famous draft dodger during the 1970s saying “I won’t fight no Viet Cong!” You may not know that he was married four times, had numerous affairs, and fathered at least seven daughters and two sons, some out of wedlock. Those facts did not make the nostalgia reel.
So what is God’s take on Mohammed Ali?
Here are my conclusions based on reflections from the Bible:
1. For much of his life, Ali’s character was opposite of greatness. Jesus likened true greatness to servanthood (Matthew 23:11), humility (Philippians 2:1-11), childlike innocence (Matthew 18:3), and lovingly deferring to others (1 Corinthians 13). Mohammed Ali’s life reeked of egotism and pride.
2. His rebellion against authority (1 Samuel 15:23) and draft-dodging set a bad example in the US, and helped cause the death of many people in Viet Nam. Ali could have been a humble conscientious objector and served in a non-combat role. Instead he publicly led the parade of America’s first defeat in war. The communists won and millions were slaughtered. That’s why the Left adores him.
3. He rejected the Christian faith of his parents (Proverbs 1:8, 9), and embraced radical Islam, then Sunnism, then finally philosophical spirituality. Probably more than any other figure, he lulled America to sleep in the 1960’s about the evils of Islamic jihad–then bailed out himself in later life.
4. Mohammed Ali was an immoral man that used many women and did not live for family values (Ephesians 5:3). His life was about himself–not loyalty to others.
5. He reaped what he sowed from boxing–early-on-set Parkinson’s due to continued trama to the head (Galatians 6:7). He lived thirty years of his life as a pale shadow of himself due to his choice of vocation.
6. He was involved in much philanthropy and seemed to like children. In this way, his life was similar to Elvis Presley’s. He had a big heart and relational gifts that could have been used greatly in the lives of others and for Christ’s kingdom. But pride and destructive behavior limited it.
So why was there so much Ali worship after he passed? That’s an easy answer.
In our new post-Christian world, he’s a shining worldly (satanic) example: Arrogant, famous, boastful, rebellious, anti-authority, self-consumed, immoral, anti-Christ, pro diversity in religion, and with a veneer of good works.
That makes him “great” in our growing secular society where self expression rules. But not in God’s kingdom where death to self, humility and servanthood are the true measures of greatness.
It is Jesus who is truly the Greatest in what He said, what He did, and who He is (book of Hebrews).
Follow, adore, and imitate HIM.