Saturday, June 4, 2016

Why I admire Muhammad Ali

The year 2016 is quickly becoming "The year everyone died." From David Bowie to Prince, and yesterday we were all notified that Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time, passed away also. It is only June, so other celebrities and beloved figures may soon be on their way out as well, a thought that truly does make me feel cold and empty on the inside.


Muhammad Ali during his early boxing years


Ali's death at age 74 comes as a surprise, but on some levels this death was more expected than the others. Ali had for many years struggled with Parkinson's disease, and had been in and out of hospitals for respiratory problems. Still, he is a beloved figure and he will never be forgotten.

This post will not be about the ways that Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer of all time; Ali retired from boxing in 1981, ten years before I was born. So, I did not have the opportunity to see him fight during his prime (although I have seen some of his fights on YouTube). Nor will it be about a history of his life; he wrote an autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story (which I highly recommend), and there is a biopic about him named Ali, where he is portrayed by Will Smith (this is perhaps Smith's best performance). The book and the film give a good account of the various aspects of this man's life (there was never a dull moment), but I want to share two instances in his life that inspired me and in part made me the person I am today.

The first has to do with Ali's joining the Nation of Islam. Before he was known as Ali, he was Cassius Clay, and was raised a Baptist. But, owing to the influence of Malcolm X and others, he joined the Nation and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This was a very risky business, as the Nation was portrayed as a racist organisation (and rightfully so), which cost him popularity among his white fans and also caused rifts with his family, especially his first wife and his father (who he was originally named after). But, Ali was a man of conviction. He believed the Nation's teachings (though he left in 1975 and became a Sunni Muslim), and was willing to join even if everyone turned against him. This was an inspiration to me in my own religious journey, converting from Protestant Christianity to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My family was vehemently opposed to the decision, but I knew it was the right thing to do and followed my convictions. Reading about Ali's journey in my youth gave me courage to make the tough choice.

The second point has to deal with Ali and his relationship to the Nation again. The Nation had a strict code of nonviolence (which in the case of Malcolm X they suspended), so they were initially hesitant to allow Ali to become a member. However, they eventually allowed him too. When Ali was stripped of his boxing title in the 1960's, it seemed that his life of violence was over so there would be no more problems. This was not Ali's plan however, as later on he was allowed to fight in Georgia. This led Elijah Muhammad (the leader of the Nation) to suspend Ali as a member. Later on, Elijah allowed Ali back in the Nation and sent his son Herbert (who had been Ali's manager) to deliver the message. Upon hearing the news, Ali said
"Ali: "So, I can be a Muslim again? Herbert: "Yes." Ali: "I never stopped, just like I never stopped being the champ. Herbert: (Silence, with puzzled look on his face) Ali: "I love you, I love your father, and I love the Nation, but it don't own me"
That is an amazing statement, which is mentioned by Ali in his book and shown in the biopic. This also influenced me after becoming a Mormon. There is in LDS culture a delusion (a fixed, false belief) that leaders are always right, and you are better off doing what they say even if you believe it is wrong rather than following your own conscience. I have never embraced that belief in my entire tenure as a Mormon, and I never will. I love the Church, I believe its doctrines, I sustain my leaders, and respect their opinions, but this does not mean from time to time they do not err (as I also do). As John Taylor said once "I will not be a slave." I thank Ali for stirring that belief in me as a young boy when reading his biography. It has never left me.

Everyone is now talking and showing clips about how great a fighter Ali was, but his strength of character is even greater than his fists (and they were a force to be reckoned with. Ali, you will be missed, but to me he was not the greatest because of what he did in the ring; it is what he did outside of it. I will miss you brother. I hope that you have found happiness on the other side. You are truly "The Greatest."

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