I don’t remember a time when we have had to say goodbye to so many people who were true giants in their field. Perhaps the biggest loss of all has been Muhammad Ali – the greatest.
I’m not much of a boxing fan but he was simply always there when I was growing up in news stories impossible to ignore like his bout with the Englishman Henry Cooper, the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ when he fought George Foreman and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ where his opponent was Smokin Joe Frazier. As a television personality through his numerous appearances as a chat show guest , he was surely second to none and I remember being entertained by him many times in this role during my teenage years before the cruel decline in his health took him all too soon out of the public eye.
I must admit, though, that for all my memories of Ali as news item, raconteur and wit, I had underestimated the profound content of what he actually said in his interviews. The obituaries have made up for that and they bear eloquent witness to the fact that before the vast majority of his compatriots he was using his fame from the start as a platform to campaign against war and in favour of the equality of the races. He was ready to face abuse, the removal of his titles and even arrest for the sake of beliefs for which in those dangerous days many gave their lives.
Naturally, as a Christian, I am disappointed that Ali was put off my own variety of faith as a youngster even though he regularly attended a Baptist church during his formative years. He was upset that the Jesus portrayed in this setting was a blue-eyed white man while according to his own account of the process, even a holy picture including some black angels might have made a difference and made him feel included in the gospel story. Maybe I need to learn from that to question my own way of sharing what I believe.
In 1965, he converted to Islam, taking the Muslim name Muhammad Ali in place of what he thought of as his ‘slave name’, Cassius Clay. However, his funeral service in Louisville will be an inter-faith one, emphasising his mighty stature as a humanitarian and his humility as a man of God. As Ali himself put it, “Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams – they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do – they all contain truths.” Amen to that.
On Saturday, the Welsh football team begins its campaign in the UEFA European Championship in France. Let’s hope this is just the beginning of another amazing sporting story that resonates into the far future. After all, even though Muhammad Ali died as a giant of the last century, he began his career as the little guy and had to fight against the odds in sport and in life to achieve all he did.