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The Fight and Faith of Muhammad Ali

Credit: John Rooney via AP

By now you have seen, heard, and talked about the passing of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016). Such is life in the age of the Internet, when news is dated and ubiquitous within moments. But there was a time when the spreading of the news was dependent upon its significance. Today, the shooting of a gorilla spreads just as quickly as Taylor Swift's breakup. However, this wasn't always the case, unless of course, you were "the greatest."

Muhammad Ali was the greatest because he was a fighter. Obviously, we remember him for his fights in the ring. 'The Rumble in the Jungle' with George Foreman of grill fame. 'The Fight of the Century' against Joe Frazier. 'The Thrilla in Manilla' where his rope-a-dope strategy and Ali shuffle gave him the win by technical knockout. Ali fought in the ring to become the greatest, but his fighting outside the ring is what made him an American icon.


Born Cassius Macellus Clay on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali fought against mediocrity. At age twelve, he started boxing. Before the 1960 Olympics, he won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles and two national Golden Gloves titles. He had a record of one hundred wins and five losses as an amateur. At the 1960 Olympics, he would win gold, successfully fighting against mediocrity.

Defeating mediocrity, Ali next set his sights on racism. During 1960, racism was alive and well, pervasive and vicious. With his freshly awarded 1960 gold medal, Ali returned to the land of the free and was refused service at a soda fountain counter. He then proceeded to remove his medal and throw it into the Ohio River. He said, "Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong."

In 1964, Cassius Clay renounced his self-proclaimed "slave name" and said he would be known from then on as Muhammad Ali — bestowed by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. The "Louisville Lip" kept his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, known for its rejection of pacifism in the fight for civil rights, secret until he had won the title. For the next three years, the newly minted Muhammad Ali would fight and defend his title six times. But in his next fight in 1967, he would meet his match.

At the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. Ali was never one to back down, but he decided to fight the US government instead of the Viet Cong.

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me."

His appeal took four years. Over that four stretch, Ali's popularity waned. Sportswriters called him a "punk," another noted that he was "the white man's burden." Jackie Robinson said, "He's hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam…And the tragedy to me is, Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he's not willing to show his appreciation to a country that's giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity." But if his past fights were any indication, Ali could never be counted out.

In June 1971, after more than fifteen rounds but four years, Ali won his fight against the government. The US Supreme Court reversed his draft dodging conviction that cleared him to fight in the ring again. After three years, a Fight of the Century and a Rumble in the Jungle, Ali would earn back his crown as the champ against George Foreman.

But in 1981, Ali would face his last and greatest fight – Parkinson's disease. This vicious disease would try to rob the Louisville Lip of his eloquence. However, Muhammad Ali would not go down without a fight. Keith Olbermann, interviewing Ali later in his life, noted:

"I had to restrain my tears, not because of the pathos of his hindered speech, but because of the intensity of his refusal to recalculate what he wanted to do or what he wanted to convey or who he wanted to be, just because that part of his brain didn't work very well anymore. "

Ali could not be stopped, refused to go down without a fight. But in this final round, Ali would not fight for himself but for others. He fought for release of American hostages in Lebanon in 1985 and Iraq in 1990. He was a UN Messenger of Peace to Afghanistan in 2002. For Ali, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."

But now Muhammad Ali fights no more and his room here on earth is vacant. He left this earth in a better place than he found it, a different place. A place where news travels quickly and moments of reflection are rare.

But death can be different. Death stops one person and it causes us all to pause at varying levels. Death raises the ominous question as to what is next. For the Muslim, what is next is dependent upon what good you did in the past. For the Christian, what is next is intricately intertwined with what you think God did on the cross of Christ over two thousand years ago. His work on the cross and in the tomb three days later generated news that still reverberates to this day. His work; your decision.

As Muhammad Ali said, "Silence is golden when you can't think of a good answer." But I might add, questions are welcomed and answers are available for those who find themselves buzzing like bees with curiosity.

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