Before the advent of social media and social networking platforms capable of connecting people from around the globe, one person’s name became popular from Asia to Africa, to Europe and South America, without the use of Twitter or Facebook: Muhammad Ali. Before dedicated and expensive marketing and public relations companies routinely marketed and managed pro athletes, using their athletic talent and popularity to generate millions of dollars the world over, one person blazed such a trail: Muhammad Ali. Before the time where people would do literally almost anything to gain their fleeting 15 minutes of YouTube or reality television fame, one person’s name has admiringly endured for the past several decades: Muhammad Ali.
Ali was laid to rest last weekend, but the fragrance of his life still remains, and will for some time. As he was eulogized in a way befitting the “greatest of all time,” it was incredibly evident that, even in death, his life animated the packed memorial service. Also evident, and what has oft been noted, is that this once gifted, brash and outspoken man became the embodiment of American ideals — one who at times spoke as its conscience also represented its heart.
Ali’s name has become so familiar and popular in American society that we often forget its origins. He was born Cassius Clay. It was the great fighter’s conversion to Islam that gave birth to the name that became known the world over. His religion was not a show or a farce. Through it Ali became a transformed transformationalist.
In a time when we see religion used cynically by the likes of some politicians to manipulate their way to power and money, or spitefully by those who desire to block and deny the rights of those whose lifestyles they consider “unacceptable,” or even used viciously to murder and kill innocents, Ali’s faith reminds us of the beauty and purpose of religion in society. It was the driving force in his lifelong push for social justice, his constant display of empathy for others and his persistent appeals for peace and tolerance.
Religion also led Ali to one of the most defining periods of his life. In what foreshadowed his later boxing ring “rope a dope” strategy, a technique in which he would brace himself on the ropes surrounding the ring and take blow after blow from his opponent, rolling his body from side to side to lessen the blows’ impact and severity, Ali had to do this metaphorically when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War.
Emphatically he stated, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people.” The verbal and psychic assaults against him were blistering and relentless. He was labeled as “unpatriotic,” “ungrateful.” Yet, Ali stood firm. The eloquent warrior made clear that he was not a coward but a man of principle. A man of formidable violence in the ring, he was a champion of peace outside it.
In a time when athletes are often not held accountable for their actions due to their talent and celebrity, when money is the driving force in sports as in other spheres of life, Ali, who was in his boxing prime during this time, willingly sacrificed fame and fortune to stand on something that is often quite elusive and absent today: principle.
For refusing to submit to the military draft, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison (he served no jail time), fined $10,000, stripped of his heavyweight title and banished from boxing for three years — causing him to miss out on millions in earnings.
He was vindicated in 1971 when, in a unanimous 8-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction and he was allowed to fight. As public attitudes and perception about the war began to change, Ali in time won in the court of public opinion as well.
Once derided and vilified by many in America, he soon became one of the country’s most well-known and well-liked ambassadors. For many around the world, Ali was America: strong, confident, optimistic, vibrant and brimming with life.
He “shook up the world” and the world is better for it; we are better for it.
Sadly, the memorial to one of America’s most favored is being eclipsed by the devastating and deadly shooting in Orlando, Florida, by a gunman who is slowly appearing more driven by mental instability and homophobia than radical ideology. But even the cursory appearance of a radical Islamic connection is unfortunately enough to do damage and bring about negative repercussions.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Ali movingly noted, “I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.” At his memorial service Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali, observed, “Adversity can make you stronger. It was his religion that turned him away from violence. So even in death, Muhammad Ali has something to say.”
Shaking with Parkinson’s disease, yet determinedly walking with the Olympic torch to light the Olympic Cauldron, Ali helped mark the beginning of the 1996 Summer Olympics. And although he never uttered a word, Ali spoke volumes to all that summer evening. He spoke of a spirit that is always triumphant, that never yields to fear or uncertainty, that strives to overcome regardless of the obstacle. His actions, which were his words that night, moved many to tears.
May his legacy, like that flame he carried, ignite within us a desire to never quit on our principles, on our beliefs and values as a nation, as a diverse yet united group of people whose ideals have been a beacon and inspiration to so many. “The Champ” would have it no other way.