The winner, by unanimous decision, is Ken Burns’ documentary on Muhammad Ali. Burns takes a subject we thought we knew and creates a vivid new portrait.
As I watched it on Wyoming Public Television, it became apparent that Ali had, more than I realized, been a major part of my life from the day he won the Olympic gold medal in 1960 until his death. I was between the sixth and seventh grade when I started paying attention to the brash, young boxer. I was 68 years old when the philosopher of our times died in 2016.
Money earned on my paper route was used to subscribe to “Ring Magazine.” Each issue was filled with stories about Cassius Clay and his meteoric rise in the heavyweight rankings. I studied details of every match, eagerly awaiting his chance to win the championship.
My father and I shared an interest in boxing. We did not share an admiration for Cassius Clay. My father despised him. He couldn’t wait for Sonny Liston to shut the Louisville Lip’s mouth.
He and I wagered a dollar bill on the first Liston-Clay fight. We sat at the kitchen table, listening to the bout on radio. When Liston surrendered, refusing to come off his stool for the seventh round, dad took a dollar bill from his billfold, slammed it on the kitchen table and went to bed without another word.
Clay didn’t endear himself to my father when he became a Muslim and adopted a strange new name. That was just too weird for my conventional father. It motivated me to learn more about Islam. I listened when Ali explained. Referring to “Clay” as his slave name, Ali said, “I didn’t choose it, and I don’t want it.” His new name was “a free name,” meaning “beloved of God.” I got it.
All hope that Ali would win over my father was lost when he refused military induction during Vietnam. Dad was a veteran, fought in the Pacific, never talked about it, and didn’t cotton up to a man who refused to serve, especially when his refusal was based on a religious belief he couldn’t comprehend.
I wanted to know more about Ali’s decision when he said, “Why should they ask me to go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
That was an awakening.
Through the 1960s and ‘70s, I followed Ali’s every fight, as I did his relationship with Malcolm X. I admired Malcolm’s boldness and thought the two stood for the same things, surprised when they became alienated from one another.
Years later, I saw Ali at a sports show in Denver. Knowing he’d be signing autographs, I brought a Malcolm X hat, unsure how he would react. He smiled and signed the cap. It still sits on my bookshelf today.
As a pastor, what I appreciated about Ken Burns’ story was learning about the atonement Ali sought for his most regrettable behavior. He asked forgiveness for taunting opponents like Joe Frazier. He sought atonement for his womanizing and, in his later years, held tight to his love of Allah.
Although he had once advocated Muslim exclusivity and a separatist vision, segregating blacks from whites, he came to believe all people are children of God. He put it eloquently. “Rivers, lakes and streams all have different names, but they are all made of water.”
The Burns documentary disclosed Ali’s belief in a “tallying angel.” Like a ringside judge during a prize fight, the tallying angel keeps track of good deed and sins. At the end of life, the score is announced. Life’s fight is won or lost. Ali busied himself in his last years trying to offset his earlier mistakes.
Muhammad Ali boiled his theology down to these few words: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.” That makes him “the Greatest.”