Who is the greatest of all time?

This post is not about weddings, but as Muhammad Ali was a global and inspiring Muslim figure, we had to share this.

muhammad ali

Memories of Muhammad Ali

Everyone has a favorite memory of Muhammad Ali. For me, the iconic moment was visiting a family friend’s house in 1973. We had moved up from watching Ali’s fights on television in black and white at the neighbors house, to seeing Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman on a color TV. In the fifth round, Ali hit Foreman square in the jaw, and there in all hues I saw a shower of sweat blow out of Foreman’s Afro. What a sight!

Who was the greatest of all time?

Ali was once the most famous man in the world, he left an impression on anyone who connected with him. His personality was larger than life, but beneath it all, he was a human, with flaws like the rest of us. When I was a child, growing up in gritty Manchester, England, he was a Muslim hero we all looked up to.  His victories were ours and his losses too and with it we lived through him.

Known as “The Greatest,” I have often thought about what makes an athlete or for that matter any person great? There are a few adjectives that come to mind including, courage, dignity, grace, love, generosity, charisma, beauty, and the list goes on.

There are many athletes who were and are considered “The Greatest.” In boxing besides Ali, which includes Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe  Louis, George Foreman, Mike Tyson,… In men’s tennis for example there was: Rod Laver,  John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer,… and in women’s tennis: Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graff, Serena Williams,… In basketball it is Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry,… Your list may be different and that is okay.

It is difficult to compare athletes across different eras and even more so across different sports. David Foster Wallace, in his article, “Federer as Religious Experience” states “Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious.” Each great athlete fuses speed, power, drive, focus, commitment, raw talent, rhythm, discipline, agility, grace, emotional maturity, and zen like calmness under pressure  into taking their discipline to new levels. There are many lists of “Greatest Athlete of All Time” and Ali’s name is usually on or near the top. However, where he tops all these great athletes is that he transcended his arena in sports. He became a goodwill ambassador for humanity.

His Courage

By standing up for his beliefs and convictions, for example refusing to be inducted into the armed forces, and losing both his title and large sums of money at the peak of his boxing career, makes him stand head and shoulders above the rest. In a world where most of us want to just fit in, he had the courage and conviction to speak out against the social injustices of that time. In today’s highly-paid athletes whose off court endorsements can pay multiple times their prize money, no one is willing to take stands that would jeopardize their careers or their purses.

Sometimes when I am feeling down or feel like the odds are stacked against me, I watch my favorite film, the Oscar winning, “When we were Kings.” It is a story of David versus Goliath, a reenactment of Ali fighting against the indestructible George Foreman in Zaire. Even though I know what is going to happen in the fight, it is a metaphor of life, to take pain, think strategically, have faith and yes use the “Rope-a-dope.”

muhammad ali

May Muhammad Ali continue inspiring generations to come. Surely we belong to God and to Him shall we return. Inna Lillahi wa inallah rajioon.

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