It may seem strange to think of a man who thought of himself as “the greatest” as being humble. But from what I’ve read, those who were close to him say that he was, in fact, quite humble. What most people saw was just one aspect of Muhammed Ali, his public boasting and colorful trash talking. Maybe his humility was more obvious in his later days, towards the end of his life. Whatever the case may be though, Ali’s desire for being the greatest boxer was not necessarily at odds with being humble–-it is very possible to be humble and great at the same time. God is paradoxically both. As a devout Muslim, Muhammed Ali very much believed that God was great and that his pursuit of greatness was a means of reflecting God. I think that the greatest, most powerful lesson that Ali taught was on the necessity of being great.
At age 12, Muhammed Ali took an interest in boxing on the occasion of the theft of his bicycle. He was motivated by a desire to whoop the kid who stole his bike. After all, those who want to be great have to start off somewhere, right? Apparently he eventually saw that he had a talent for boxing and that this would be the means of achieving greatness. At age 22 he beat the reigning champion Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title, for the first time. By the time he retired, he fought 61 major fights of which he only lost 5. Total number of knockouts: 37. In the ring, Ali delivered on his claim to be “the greatest.” He wasn’t just talk. He proved what he said, backed it up with action. When he laced those gloves up, he meant business. Muhammed Ali believed that he was created for greatness to the point where he actually became great. Hits desire was realized because he cooperated with it. For all his bragging, he was telling the truth. And for what it’s worth, humility is defined as the acknowledgment of truth about one’s self.
Far from being opposed to humility, wanting to be great is a noble thing. It is a virtue that complements the former, and it’s called magnanimity, which comes from the Latin words for great and soul. Ali Was great soul-ed. he was magnanimous.
I can think of countless places in the New Testament where magnanimity is extolled: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” “I have appointed you to bear much fruit that will last,” “run so as to win,” “we exist for the praise of his glory,” etc. Many Saints taught magnanimity and exemplified it, such as St. Catherine of Siena who said that if we are what we should be, we would set the world on fire. St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. John Bosco. And of course, there is St. Therese who aspired to to greatness and taught that it could be achieved by the faithful and loving fulfillment of what is required at every moment. I am reminded of the words of a Missionary of Charity sister, a member of the religious congregation founded by soon-to-be Saint, Mother Teresa. She looked right at me and demanded me to be a saint, “and not just any saint, you must be a great Saint!”
Now I don’t mean to suggest that Muhammed Ali was free from pride and arrogance. Some of his taunts, while highly entertaining and humorous, came across as being unmistakably arrogant. What I am saying however, is that Ali teaches us that greatness is the only option. We only have one opportunity to get it right, we are to make the best of the life we have been given and achieve the greatest degree of glory possible.
Even when Parkinson’s robbed speech from the man known as the Louisville Lip, he remained strong and was an advocate for those in need. And if not speaking made him humble, it made him all the more greater.
Rest in peace Muhammed Ali.