Muhammad Ali. A generation that grew up with him can't believe he is gone, but just like you and I will also do one day, he has returned to where he came. For his great achievements - he will be remembered. So many young men have aspired to be just like Ali, but is his life the best model for real men? ... Are the things that he left behind all great? ... and was he really ready for his final round?
Muhammad Ali was a man loved by millions and many will talk about him long into the future – about the great exploits of Muhammad Ali.
But great men die – even a man like Ali – and it will be those closest to him who will grieve the most. We should remember Ali for the impact he had on the world, but we should remember that Ali was also a father, husband and son; and think of the grief his close friends and family will be going through. This is never diminished just because someone is famous. Over the months ahead, they will also have to come to grips with the complicated legacy that Ali leaves behind.
For the rest of us, we will read and see a great deal about Mr Ali (born Cassius Clay) in the coming days and months. Much of it will be glowing, but there are plenty of skeletons pressing out of the cupboards too. No man is without his faults, including Muhammad Ali.
The Brash Young Champ
I am personally just a few years too young to remember the best of Ali as a boxer, and like most of us who never met the man, what I know, I know second hand.
It is clear to everyone that he was like many a young man is – brash, arrogant, prideful, believing himself invincible, determined to get what he wanted at any cost. Consider these quotes from him as a young man in his twenties:
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it.”
“If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.”
Ali was a man who knew what he wanted to be, and wanted to make sure everyone knew it and believed it too.
Using His Platform
We all know about his success in the ring – three time world heavyweight champion, despite missing years of his prime as he served a ban for refusing to be drafted into the American army to fight in Vietnam. However, Ali’s greatest achievements for many were his pursuit of moral issues that he believed in. His ability in the ring gave him the platform, and he used it to inspire thousands of colored men and women and used it to bring greater justice in the eyes of the law to African-Americans. He helped break down the evil evolutionary idea that white men are more evolved than men of color.
“Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.” – Ali
On this he concurs with the Holy Scriptures “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. ” Genesis 1:27
Racism is an idea born out of men’s quest for power over others for their own ends. Ali did much at a critical time in American history to break down racism and help non-whites to dream big and ‘shoot for the stars’.
People may not agree with them, but they tend to admire a man of conviction – Guy M.
Ali was a man of conviction, and he is perhaps admired by millions more for that than just for his boxing ability.
However, considering what I know about Ali, I couldn’t help but ask myself this question:
Would I Want To Be Ali?
Examining another man is fought with problems. Firstly, we never can really know someone else – especially someone we have never even met! So much happens in private that no one can ever see. But such is the life of any public figure, and for us it is important that we learn what we can from the lives of others who have gone before us – as an example, for teaching and for correction, to benefit our own lives. When I started thinking about the qualities I knew about Ali, I started to ask myself these questions:
Would I like to be him? .. would I like my kids to be like him?
My answer to those two questions is sadly – no, I would not like to be Ali and nor would I want my sons to be like him.
Let me explain why.
Balance in the Ring, but not in Life
It so often seems with men who accomplish so much – that they are so incredibly strong in some areas, but lack greatly in others. In my view, Ali appears to have been a high achiever in some of the key pillars a man needs in his life, but not in others (see the 7 pillars diagram on the right)
Ali was a high achiever in the pillars of:
# Passion, and
In these two qualities, Ali was off the scale. Passion is what drives you on when everyone else would quit:
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” – Ali
And in purpose he was clear about what he wanted to achieve and was prepared to pay any price for it. This wasn’t just in the ring, where Ali said he had calculated he had taken 29,000 punches in the pursuit of victory. He was also prepared to lose his titles and go to jail over refusing to fight in Vietnam. You don’t need to agree with his views to admire his strength to follow through on his convictions. He most certainly wasn’t afraid of what others would say about him, and he had a vision for what he wanted and he chased it – hard. We should all take note of these qualities and ask ourselves if we have them.
Ali was in my view, not quite as strong in the qualities of:
# Investment (strong on investment in himself, weak on investment in his family)
# Leadership (able to inspire others to do what they believed in; but didn’t lead his family well)
# Identity (knew who he was as a boxer and civil rights advocate; but lacked identity as a husband and father)
On the surface it looks like Ali knew who he was as a man, was a great leader and invested highly in what was important. Certainly this is true in the big ticket areas of his public life, but his private life was a mess.
You can not deem yourself a success in life if you neglect the most important areas of your life. – Guy M.
Clearly Ali new how to invest in Ali the boxer. He knew he could lead and influence other African-Americans. He could invest in sick children. He could fight against injustice. But he did not know how or was not willing to invest in his marriage and all of his kids. The legacy of his four wives, at least nine children and possibly many more from his countless adulterous relationships, demonstrated what so often happens for really high achievers – the imbalance in character results in others paying a high price for his success. Stories of his only known biological son living in poverty in Chicago’s crime-plagued South Side make one wonder what has gone on behind the scenes within his family. I don’t know, but his success as a dad certainly doesn’t appear to be anything like that of his boxing – and that is a real shame.
If you neglect your marriage and your children, this demonstrates that despite Ali claiming to be a man who served God (though his Muslim faith), his actions show that Ali was a man who pursued success in his own strength – and this type of strength always brings sorrow with it .
In my opinion, Ali was weakest in:
# Quite a few qualities relating to character (especially humility, meakness, self control, discernment), and
A man who does not fear God is not wise. Ali lacked wisdom, and had he pursued wisdom like he did his boxing success, we would be looking back on the life of a far greater man than we are now; and his family would enjoy a legacy without the conflict and hurt that will begin to take hold after he is buried and they begin to feed off what he left behind.
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” James 3:17
Unfortunately, Ali’s legacy that he has left will not look like this in the weeks and months ahead.
A Different Man Near The End?
Ali fought Parkinson’s disease for just over 30 years. Near the end, he could not speak and could not do anything for himself.
Joe Fraser infamously implied that Ali’s arrogance and idolatry of himself were to blame for his disease.
“I’m sorry that he is the way he is, but I didn’t have too much to do with it [Parkinson’s disease]. It was the good man [God] above,” Frazier said. “Maybe I did have a little to do with it, but God judges, you know what I’m saying? We don’t have the power to judge that the man has above.” – Joe Fraser
Perhaps Joe was thinking about another great man the Old Testament scriptures tell us about. Another great man who was overcome with his own self importance and achievements – a man by the name of Nebuchadnezzar:
Daniel speaking: “‘King Nebuchadnezzar, please accept my advice. Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past and be merciful to the poor. Perhaps then you will continue to prosper.’
“But all these things did happen to King Nebuchadnezzar. Twelve months later he was taking a walk on the flat roof of the royal palace in Babylon. As he looked out across the city, he said, ‘Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.’
“While these words were still in his mouth, a voice called down from heaven, ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, this message is for you! You are no longer ruler of this kingdom. You will be driven from human society. You will live in the fields with the wild animals, and you will eat grass like a cow. Seven periods of time will pass while you live this way, until you learn that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses.’
“That same hour the judgment was fulfilled, and Nebuchadnezzar was driven from human society. He ate grass like a cow, and he was drenched with the dew of heaven. He lived this way until his hair was as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails were like birds’ claws.
Nebuchadnezzar Praises God [learnt his lesson]
“After this time had passed, I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up to heaven. My sanity returned, and I praised and worshiped the Most High and honored the one who lives forever.”
Perhaps Ali mellowed in his later years as he thought about the day he would meet his maker. Perhaps he too came to realize that while he may have been the greatest so far in the ring, he was not so great that he had any control over his own mortality and that one day he would have to face the one who did.
This quote was attributed to him late in his life:
If so, it is vastly different to his brash quotes as a young man.
God loves us, but he does demand that we recognize that He alone is God (first 2 of 10 commandments, see Exodus 20) and that Jesus Christ is the only way to God (John 14:6).
I so much hope that quote is accurate and the Ali came to a point of humbling himself before God his maker and met Jesus before he died.
Like we saw with Nebuchadnezzar, God is a God of second chances – but only while we are still here. Once we meet him face to face, our chances are up.
I hope Ali took his second chance, because as R.C Sproul Jr. said today:
“Ali has now met the greatest of all time”
I hope Muhammad Ali was ready for his final round with the true Greatest Of All Time.
For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.