The man who called himself “the Greatest” is dead.
The Louisville Lip who used to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee was reduced to frailty and near inability to even speak in his final decades. Like every man before him. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
I never admired Muhammad Ali. While his athletic prowess was world-class, I never bragged on him or admired him or thought much of him at all. Maybe it’s because my childhood memories are mostly 1980s, when Larry Holmes was the undisputed champ. But mostly it’s because my Dad, my earthly hero, told me Muhammad Ali was a coward not worth admiring.
My Dad, you see, was drafted in 1966. Keep in mind Dad was a junior in college, was married, and was already intending to pursue pastoral ministry. He could have easily pulled one of those “cards” to avoid military service. He knew plenty of men who did pull those cards!
But not my Dad. Not only did he do his duty, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps because he figured if he was going to go to Vietnam (a given in those days), he might as well go with the best! And go he did. Two tours in Vietnam. Four years of active duty service total. Battlefield promoted to Sergeant. Winner of the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry (the second highest medal for that government, if memory serves me). My sister was not yet 1 year old when Dad left for ‘Nam. Call me crazy, but in my book, this is what heroes are made of.
“Somebody died in his place. Somebody’s son died in the place of that coward.”
That was Dad’s assessment of “The Greatest.” It has been amazing to me how in the media aftermath of Ali’s death, no one has mentioned the almost comical irony of Cassius Clay conveniently changing his name and his religion to avoid going into a real war. With real bullets. With real heroes who bled and died by the tens of thousands. Sacrificed themselves for others, for a cause greater than themselves. I mean, come on, does anyone out there not see the laughable irony of an “Islamic conscientious objector”? Could you imagine someone trying to pull that card today?
I served for over five years in the Marine Corps alongside American Muslims. In no way do I mean to belittle them or their religion. The Marines I served with who were practicing Muslims trained hard and deployed, leaving family behind, and were ready to sacrifice for America just like me. And just like my Dad did 45 years ago. But that’s precisely my point – they would not have even considered it an option to “opt out due to religion.” And frankly, I am not sure any man should be permitted to do so. It has always gotten under my skin that Muhammad Ali got filthy rich from a country he was not even willing to serve in the trenches. All the benefits with no sacrifice.
Almost sounds like the new motto of America, huh?!
Well, perhaps you’ll excuse this rant. Perhaps not. But one thing I can assure you of, I do not think Muhammad Ali was the greatest. Not even close. I am sad for his family. But even sadder for him. He spent his adult life in arrogance and defiance of the one true God. He died, as far as anyone knows, believing that the Man who was truly The Greatest – Jesus the Christ – would one bow His knee to Muhammad the prophet of Islam.
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason God has highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him a name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:8-11).
Turns out Dad was right. Somebody’s son no doubt did die in the jungles of Vietnam in the place of the Louisville Lip. But even more critically for all of us to grasp is that God’s Holy Son, the Divine-Man Jesus, died in place of all His sinful people who would cry out to Him for forgiveness. D-day is coming for us all. Bow to Jesus today and you will know the joy and soul deep peace that no religion of human merits / works can ever truly give! Islam is a religion of self-salvation, and a very uncertain one at that. But no man, not even one we called “the greatest,” can save himself from his sins. That’s why we call Jesus . . . Savior.
One can’t help but wonder what might have been had Ali submitted his life and his prideful lips to the Lord Christ. Surely nobody would have been able to get him to shut up about the love and grace of King Jesus! But it was not to be. His death is sad. And thousands more are dying all around us on their way to the same Christ-less hell.
O Lord Jesus. help us start boasting more of You and Your cross! And help us guard carefully who we extol as a hero. Amen.