The news cycle seemed broken this last weekend as early Saturday morning it became known that boxing legend Muhammad Ali had died in Scottsdale, AZ. As I watched CNN Saturday morning, the meager and repetitive coverage was frustratingly thin. Most mainstream news folks (including those at Fox) don’t work weekends, so it took time for the news industry to gear up for better analysis of this man. This week promises to be full of insightful and fascinating stories, testimonies, and clips about a man who held a place in the American spotlight for four decades. Allow me to give my take.
I must admit up front that Muhammad Ali was not my favorite person. I found him very hard to like for three reasons:
- Ali was a relentless braggart. I think it is OK to talk smack in competitive situations, but Ali never knew when to stop. There was no line between self-confidence and self promotion. He nullified the demeanor of the quiet heroes in sports I grew up with, men like Roger Maris who circled the bases after breaking the home run record with his eyes down and ducked into the dugout quickly. Men like Edgar Martinez who was the most surprised person in the Kingdom when he hit the double that won the 1995 playoff series against the Yankees. Or Peyton Manning, when asked what he was going to do with all the money he would make after signing his first contract, said, “I’m going to earn it.”
- Ali renounced the Christian faith. He rejected the name of his Christian father (Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr.) and turned his back on his Baptist and Methodist upbringing. He affiliated with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, a strange mix of Muslim teachings and black radicalism from the 1960s. Later, Ali appears to have moved to a more orthodox version of Sunni Islam, but I cannot celebrate the rejection of my Lord Jesus Christ.
- Ali refused to be drafted into the Army. I think there is a lot of romanticizing of this now, but I
remember when it happened in 1966. Ali was trying to claim a religious exemption because of his Muslim faith, in effect asking to be excused on the grounds of clergy exemption while being a professional boxer. America was stunned by this. No one was too big or famous to be drafted, we thought. Even Elvis Presley had reported for duty when drafted a few years earlier! I was not a fan of the Vietnam War either and I faced the draft a few years later. As much as I disagreed with this war, I like to believe that I would have reported if drafted and served my country as best I could.
In 1977, as his boxing career was coming to an end, Muhammad Ali was asked what he would do when he finished boxing. His answer is still interesting:
“So what I’m gonna do when I get out of boxing? Is to get myself ready to meet God. Don’t people die everyday? It’s a scary thing to think that I’m going to hell to burn eternally forever so what am I gonna do? When I get out of boxing or when I’m through I’m gonna do all I can to help people,” said Ali. “He wants to know how do we treat each other, how do we help each other. So I’m going to dedicate my life to using my name and popularity to helping charities, helping people, uniting people,” he continued, adding, “We need somebody in the world to help us all make peace. So when I die, if there’s a heaven, I want to see it.”
Even the great Ali feared death. He did not understand grace or salvation by faith in Christ. He was motivated to good works after his boxing by his desire to see heaven, not hell. It is hard to tell if he was speaking from the Muslim faith he had embraced or the legalistic Baptist faith in which he was raised, but he transparently expressed doubts many people hold. “… if there’s a heaven, I want to see it.”
Now you know, I think, so Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay, Rest in Peace.
Nebraska Christian College