The Greatest: Pluralism in the Boxing Ring

Rumble, young man rumble. Muhammad Ali, the late three-time heavyweight boxing champion, rattled off the words as the exclamation point to his quip, “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Ali, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, passed away on June 3, 2016.

Ali’s was born as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in 1942. He changed his name to Muhammad after converting to Islam shortly after defeating heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Since I live in Louisville, Kentucky, I probably take some of the Muhammad Ali legacy for granted. I’ve driven by his Louisville home on many occasions. My wife and I actually celebrated our wedding anniversary at a restaurant next to the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville on June 2nd, the night before Ali died.

The day of his death I was listening to an interview of a fellow boxer from the time of Ali’s career. Though I don’t remember the name of the person being interviewed, what stood out to me was a reference to George Foreman. The man shared that Ali and Foreman, although they were fierce competitors in the ring, became good friends. The reason for this, he said, was that they both believed in God.

While those within the monotheistic religions share some degree of common ground, at least in comparison to secularists, I don’t think their friendship is due to a shared image of God. Following his move away from boxing, Foreman came to recognize the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and its significance for his life today. After Foreman’s conversion he began a street preaching ministry and opened a center for kids in Houston. He is now an ordained minister.

This week will remember the great career of Muhammad Ali in our city and around the world. But we must be careful not to blend the recognition of worldly accomplishments, as significant as they were and are, with the category of ultimate truth. Islam, the religion to which Ali converted, clearly denies the resurrection of Jesus. And while Ali was arguably the greatest in the ring, this is a good time to stop and remember who is really the greatest of all.