Muhammad Ali once said “a man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” It was a revealing statement by someone who by age 20 had won an Olympic gold medal in boxing and was bearing down on the world heavyweight title. It was an acknowledgement that even The Greatest must evolve. The impetus for Ali’s evolution over time would be his Islamic faith.
The religious journey of then-Cassius Clay began shortly after his return from the 1960 Rome Olympics. He was feted with a parade through downtown Louisville, Kentucky, but the fact he could not be seated at many of the restaurants on the parade route was not lost on Clay.
Thereafter, at 19, Clay joined the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, a religious and political movement that espoused black nationalism and separatist views.
Clay was offended by state-sanctioned segregation. But more telling, as a child he was gripped with fear by the murder of Emmett Till, a boy his age, in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. Clay’s alignment with the Nation of Islam seems to have been as much a declaration of freedom as a proclamation of faith.
His conversion was downplayed until 1964, when Clay overcame long odds in defeating the ferocious Sonny Liston for the world title. Following the fight, Clay, named like his father for a Kentucky abolitionist, announced his conversion and that he would now be known by the name Muhammad Ali. As white America drew its collective breath, Ali, 22, set out to define his future.
Ali defended his title nine times over the next three years with athleticism never seen in a heavyweight. He seemed unstoppable until, in 1967, invoking the tenets of his religion, he refused induction into the U.S. Army. He was stripped of his title, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.
Ali’s professional and financial sacrifice in the name of faith was unparalleled. It catapulted him into the center of a moral and generational divide on the war in Vietnam; abroad, it established his profile, particularly among the poor, as a principled defender of peace.
Vindicated three years later by the Supreme Court, he set out to regain his title and stage his fights across the globe. As his wife Lonnie observed, Ali “discovered the world wasn’t really black and white at all. It was filled with many shades of rich colors, languages and religions.”
By the mid-1970s, Ali had developed a more nuanced view of his faith, moved away from the Nation of Islam and embraced what he described as “true Islam.” His evolving faith seemed a channel for his self-awareness and the realization that his talents and global influence were not entirely of his own making.
Edgy rhymes to promote his fights gave way to poetry of a different tone, indicative of his changed attitude toward salvation. “Rivers, lakes and streams,” he said, “all have different names, but all contain water; so do religions have different names, but all contain truth.” He told students, “There is one God but many ways to that God; all religions are good if you live them right.”
With the 1980s, Father Time closed the window on boxing for Ali with two crushing defeats in the ring. Then the onset of Parkinson’s Disease became apparent. It was unclear what would become of the fallen warrior, away from the lights and the crowd.
It was during this period, Ali said, that he became a true believer. To those close to him, he made it clear that he would focus his life on securing his place in heaven. His good works are well documented, with millions of dollars raised for charity, countless relief and humanitarian missions, service as a U.N. Messenger of Peace, and securing the release of U.S. hostages in Iraq.
In his private life, Ali adhered to the strict dictates of Islam. He said no to lucrative financial offers that did not harmonize with his religious views. During a 1993 visit to South Africa, he declined a $1 million fee for a one-hour appearance at a local resort on such grounds.
Ali was honest to a fault. He was accessible to his fans, never refusing an autograph seeker. To stay ever connected with his public, Ali’s beliefs are commemorated at the Ali Center in Louisville, celebrating his six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.
Ali’s rise amid storm-driven times, and his capacity to change in order to create meaning for his life, was deeply rooted in his faith. It would allow him to evolve into the man Robert Lipsyte would describe as “a secular saint.”
• Ronald DiNicola was Muhammad Ali’s personal attorney and adviser for three decades beginning in the 1980s and often traveled with him abroad. The Muhammad Ali Center, a 501(c)3 corporation, was co-founded by Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The international cultural center promotes the Six Core Principles of Muhammad Ali (Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, and Spirituality) in ways that inspire personal and global greatness and provides programming and events around the focus areas of education, gender equity, and global citizenship. Its newest initiative, Generation Ali, fosters a new generation of leaders to contribute positively to their communities and to change the world for the better. The Center’s headquarters also contains an award-winning museum experience. For more information, please visit www.alicenter.org.
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.