There are few athletes with universal name recognition. From rural China to the Tibetan plateau; from the Cyprus coast to Machu Pichu, Pele, Jordan, and Ali come to mind almost immediately as instantly recognizable in any place, no matter how obscure or removed from sports and media. But Ali is in a class of his own. His greatness was not only because of his worldwide reputation as an athlete but because of his activism and humanity. This article is a reminder of something we all know already – why Muhammad Ali is The World’s Greatest.
Born Cassius Clay, this baby boxer famously punched his mother in the mouth and gave her a bloody lip before he could even sit up on his own. At that moment, Odessa Clay knew she was raising a fighter. Growing up in Kentucky, Cassius was known as the Louisville Lip. He was a tough Kentucky boy with remarkable footwork in the ring, quick hands, and supreme confidence. He talked – a lot. But he always backed up his words with actions to prove. As a boxer, he was an Olympic Gold Medalist (1960) and a three-time world heavyweight champion (1964, 1974, 1978).
His spiritual journey is as inspiring as his ascension to the top of the boxing world, especially for those of us who identify as Muslim. The young champion, like many others, was moved by Malcolm X and started his own identity shift by changing his name to Cassius X. Later as a member of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad gave Cassius the name Muhammad Ali. He connected to Black Muslim leaders, seeking their mentorship and spiritual anchoring. Ali eventually transitioned into Sunni Islam and became a follower of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad.
In the 60s at the height of the Vietnam War, the US, and arguably the world, was organizing massive anti-war movements. Plenty of people were outspoken against the war; but very rarely did someone with celebrity status critique the US government publicly. However, Ali was anything but shy. While other athletes were mute on political and social issues, Muhammad Ali spoke out against militarism and white supremacy. His boxing bravado extended to his political beliefs. In 1966, Ali famously said “War is against the teachings of the Holy Quran.” He’s also noted as saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Viet Cong … they never called me n****r.” Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to prison for 5 years, fined thousands of dollars, and stripped of his title. He lost valuable time and money but became an iconic symbol for war resisters worldwide.
For me personally, Muhammad Ali is most inspiring not as an athlete or an activist, but as a poet. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf once said, “Words are meant to speak the truth. That’s what words are for, and that’s what the … poet does – he speaks the truth. And that’s a very difficult thing in the modern world.” I believe Ali’s poetry is in line with traditional Islamic poets like Farid Udin Attar, Rumi, Kabir, and Iqbal. Like those poets before him, Ali spoke the truth, expertly and eloquently, and he smartly used boxing as a platform. His poetry was especially relevant because it came at a time when the black community was fighting for survival but also suffering from physical, emotional, psychological and social attacks. It was a time where black people’s ideas or feelings were silenced or discredited. Ali rose above it all and articulated himself for his people. Here’s my personal selection of Ali’s poetic verses:
“It isn’t the mountains to climb ahead that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”
“If you ever dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize.”
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
“Give up what appears to be doubtful for what is certain. Truth brings peace of mind, and deception doubt.”
“God gave me this illness to remind me that I’m not Number One; He is.”
Ali threw punches with his fists and with his tongue and embodied an integrity that makes him truly deserving of his title as “The People’s Champ.” Thank you, Muhammed Ali. You are a blessing to us all.