On the fourth of June 2016, my hero died.
A couple of days earlier, I had shared a photo of Muhammad Ali following reports of him entering the Intensive Care Unit, begging people to pray for him. And on the fourth of June, I woke up to news that he had died. Words cannot describe the sadness that engulfed me the entire day. The purpose of this piece is to explain why Muhammad Ali is forever the Greatest of All Times.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way, his achievements inside of the ring. The first three-time heavyweight champion of the world, Ali’s resume is a who’s who of the greatest heavyweights in the history of the sport. Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and many other Hall of Famers fell to the Greatest. However, no fight better captures Ali’s legacy than the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 fight in Zaire, now known as the Congo, versus George Foreman.
George Foreman was a wrecking ball. The 1968 Olympic gold medalist 25-year old was a monster with freakish power, having felled 37 of his 40 opponents. Undefeated heading into the fight, his most notable victims were Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, both of whom had beat Muhammad Ali, and they were both demolished within six minutes. Ali on the other hand, has been seven years removed from the championship, after being stripped from the title due to refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, and having lost his title effort against Joe Frazier in the 1971 fight billed as the “Fight of the Century”. Ali was 34 years old, and was thought to be at the tail-end of his career. Critics feared for Ali’s life, and gave him no chance at winning, labelling him the underdog as they have done so many times before. Ali responded by promising to show them how great he is. And he did. On the 30th of October 1974, a 34-year-old former champion mentally and physically defeated a 25-year-old champion at the top of his game, a monster who inspired terror in his opponents’ hearts, and knocked him out in eight rounds.
However, we’ve all seen athletes excel at their sport. Hell, Floyd Mayweather is undefeated at 49-0, and made millions from the sport, but he is not labelled the Greatest of All Times and does not command the level of respect and admiration that Ali does. This is because Greatness requires something extra, namely a legacy outside of the ring in addition to one inside it, and Ali’s legacy outside of the ring is the stuff of legend.
In 1967, when Ali was 27 years old and in the middle of his physical prime, Uncle Sam came knocking. It was time for Ali to go to Vietnam. Going to Vietnam would not have been tough, he would not had been a frontline soldier. He wouldn’t have been required to hold a gun and shoot someone, he was the heavyweight champion of the world, there was money in keeping him alive.
It’s hard to understand, and even harder to explain, the significance of that event, so I’ll try something different. I’ll need you to picture yourself at the height of your fame, and the best in your preferred field. You are the greatest in that field, whichever it may be, but understand that if you quit now you’ll not only lose millions of dollars, you’ll never be able to return to that level of excellence. And worse, the people will hate you, a hatred that cannot be fully put into words, a level of hatred that entails death threats and abuse hurled at you and your family. Now, you are faced with an option Either symbolically support your government in a war effort you don’t believe in, or quit and deal with the hatred, abuse, and the money problems that will follow.
Ali refused. He refused to take the symbolic step forward when his name was called in the draft office. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” In response to sticking by his moral code, he was hated. He was called a coward, even though that by not stepping forward he had picked a fight with the United States’ government, the biggest and baddest bully of them all.
But Ali’s legacy outside of the ring is not only about the Vietnam war. Ali was a symbol of love. He became a UN Goodwill Ambassador to Afghanistan. He was loved in Zaire, he was loved in the Philippines, he was loved in Sweden, he was loved in the US, and he remains universally admired to this day.
For me personally, Ali’s greatness gives me confidence. There he is, a non-white Muslim proclaiming that he is the Greatest who ever lived, that he is the prettiest, the fastest, that he can’t possibly be beat. A man with an Arab name with character, strong, unfiltered character. A man with an Arab name being universally loved and admired. For me, he will forever be the Greatest.
Please understand that entire books have been written about Ali’s legacy, and that a simple article with less than a thousand words will never do it justice.