Ali Was More Than a Boxing Legend: Far More Important, He Was a Man of Character

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Mohammed Ali, the greatest world boxer of all time—which he said over and again he was, but now the whole world believes—could have made millions of United States dollars had he agreed to go to war against the Viet Kong. Surely, the US Army never would have sent him into the battlefield. He would have stayed in the background doing boxing exhibitions and other public relations work for his country at war. But he refused all that, as a matter of principle.

There were two aspects to that: first, he said he was a Muslim minister and going to war was against his religious vocation. The second was that he had absolutely NO quarrel with the Viet Kong because, he insisted, they were not the ones using the N word against him. It was his own people right at home in Louisville, Kentucky and around America, particularly the whites in that racially divided country where he was born that discriminated against him, called him the N word and meted out to him and his people—his fellow blacks—all kinds of injustices.

All of this was despite the fact that at 22, he became by far the most world famous man in or from Kentucky, having won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1962 after taking the Boxing Championship in Rome. On his return he found himself and his people still discriminated against because of their race. That is why, at one point he threw away his Olympic Gold Medal into a river. Of what use, he felt, was an Olympic Gold Medal when, because he was black, he could not be shown the basic respect as a human being in his own country?

Mohammed was extremely talented with his tongue, with his fists and on his feet—the trio that enabled him to transform boxing into a major international sport as had no other in the game’s entire history.

Yet despite all his fame, his money and his international, larger than life stature, Ali was a humble man. He was quick and powerful with the fists and on his feet, yet he was personally a very gentle man, who insisted that the most important attributes of a human being should be love, caring, kindness toward others and standing up for truth and justice.

Indeed, is there anything more important in life than these? These are Christian principles and virtues that Ali remembered because he grew up in the church. And though in later years he espoused Islam, because of these basic principles, he carved a very different attitude from the separatist brand of Islam that he joined—that of Elijah Mohammed, that preached hate against the white Americans.

But the Americans have not yet realized how racism has harmed their society in very grievous ways. It was racism in the Episcopal Church in Boston that drove away from Christianity one of the most eloquent and talented men Americans have ever known—Louis Farrakhan. And to where did they drive him? To Elijah Mohammed, too, as they did Malcom X.

So one can see why we have described Ali as being by far more than a legendary boxer, but more so a man of character. Not being the quarrelsome type, he never got into open conflict with Elijah Mohammed, though the two were diametrically different in their approaches to Islam. While most people saw Elijah as a hatemonger, absolutely nobody ever described Ali as such.

Nor did he ever display any sense of arrogance. No one ever accused him of that, not even Sony Liston, Joe Frazer or George Foreman, all of whom he whipped in the ring. Because he was so overwhelmingly self-confident, he used his gift of gab (eloquence) to boost his self-esteem by first confronting his opponents with his tongue long before he entered the ring. It was he who described his encounter with Foreman in Zaire as “the rumble in the jungle” and that with Joe Frazer in Philippines as “the thriller in Manilla.” This self-esteem gave him already a psychological victory over his opponents long before the fights began.

It is in this way that Ali promoted the sport of boxing as did none other in history.

Now that he is gone, we pray that all young people the world over, especially here in Liberia, will emulate more than the boxer in Ali, but more so the character of the man who not only preached, but lived CHARACTER. Let us all learn from and practice the love, caring, kindness and integrity that Mohammed
Ali consistently showed us in his lifetime.

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