2009 Photo by Lambert Wolterbeek Muller, flickr

This video clip of Muhammad Ali from 1972 has recently surfaced on youtube – in this clip, he’s in his prime, 30 years old, talking about what he’s going to do when he’s “an old man, ready to retire” (i.e., age 65): http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_ embedded&v=HsDH9SXKZtI.  

It is eerie watching this, if you know or remember Muhammad Ali at all.  (I know I’m aging myself by acknowledging I remember him then.)  But it’s haunting anyway, just recognizing that these are the words of a cocky, robust young man imagining and musing about distant remote events that now are actual reality. Watching it is like unto entering the Capuchin Crypt, its walls mounted floor to ceiling with human skulls for whom the crypt serves as final resting place, with a memento mori plaque on one wall reading, “As you are, we once were; as we are, so you also will be.”

Muhammad Ali today is 71 years old. Twelve years after this youtube-recorded interview, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and has since lost his speech and much of his regular physical function.  If you are under 30, you may know Ali only as the frail, elderly figure who sometimes makes cameo appearances at sporting events or charity functions.

But he was once the greatest boxer who ever lived. That I can say that without qualifying adverbs – or really much argument from anyone who knows anything about the history of boxing – is testimony to just how great he was as a boxer. His quickness, punching power, and skill were accompanied with an acid tongue; he was the consummate trash talker, inside and outside the ring.

His tongue was one of his boxing weapons. But, as the youtube clip demonstrates, that’s not all he could use his tongue was for. He had important things to say.

In 1964, he converted to Islam and registered simultaneously as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War – for which he paid at the time a dear price, both in terms of his public image and his career. He was suspended from boxing for four years at the height of his career.   That he was able to regain all three boxing heavyweight titles despite being an “old boxer” four years later, was a feat that was received with both aggravation and adulation by the boxing world.

After he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, one of the things he said through debilitated lips and with his now nearly-unresponsive tongue was that God had afflicted him with this disease for his arrogance, in making his moniker “I am the greatest” when only God is greatest.  God humbled him, and he had it coming was his assessment – his self assessment! Even if you dare agree with him, that’s pretty remarkable that such a person could come to such lucid (self) awareness before God. 

Even before that, though, even the youtube clip shows a man who, even amidst all the hubris and swagger, is remarkably self-aware . . . theologically. His conscious of the reality of eternity, of the implications of there being a God, of there being eternal residencies of heaven or hell.

Now, I’m a recovering fundamentalist. It would be easy for me to gravitate towards the too-easy, tongue-clucking, pity-the-poor unbeliever kind of take from all this. And make no mistake: I really do wish Muhammad Ali displayed more cognizance of the central importance of Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection. But listen to what he says in that youtube clip – he’s changed his name (from Cassius Clay) to Muhammad Ali, but his Baptist upbringing isn’t too far from memory.  I’d love to have a conversation with him about all that.

That aside for a moment, though, if we can allow that: if “theology 101” is, “God opposes the proud and gives His grace to the humble,” there’s no question that God has done quite a bit to humble this man, once known as “the greatest.” Yes, there is definitely a cautionary tale here.  But that’s not all.

Even as a cocky thirty-year-old boxing champion, his words and warnings echo with Matthew 25:31-46.  Not knowing the details of his actual practice or beliefs or heart (which only God knows, right?), his words sound more like those of a sheep than a goat by the Matthew 25 demarcations. (Hard not to correlate this with Matt. 12:33-37 or Luke 6:44-45, too.)

In any case, let’s leave it here: this full-of-himself Muslim celebrity sports figure is wise enough to think about to what degree he is ready to meet God.  I hear more reflective insight in his comments than I do from many Christians.  He says he plans his life around the question, “Am I ready to meet God?”

How about you?  (Or me?)


Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical.  He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.  See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/todd-mangum

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