--Random House Dictionary
“I am the greatest!” --Muhammad Ali
If that name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t be surprised. Berbick was Muhammad Ali’s final boxing opponent. Ali’s sixty-first professional bout was held on December 11, 1981 in the Bahamas. That night Ali--overweight, overmatched and well past his prime---lost in ten rounds. He never fought again. Three years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the cruel neurological affliction which marked his final years on the earth, until his death last week at the age of 74.
In all the media coverage of Ali’s death, I had to dig pretty deep to find any mention of the Berbick fight, because by then Ali was not so “great” anymore, at least not athletically. After a stellar career as the greatest boxer ever (no exaggeration there)—a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, a world heavyweight championship then winning back that championship twice—by 1981 Ali was done.
But he was still “The Greatest”. Great: beyond the ring and all the fame and all the money and all the celebrity. It all depends on what we think makes a “great” human being.
1967. Ali was on top of the world, the champ, undefeated, but then was drafted to serve and fight in the Vietnam War. A recent convert to Islam, Ali reported for his induction and said that because of his religious beliefs, he could not and would not fight and would instead seek conscientious objector status. He was indicted for draft evasion, a felony, and convicted. Stripped of his title, he was vilified, hated by most of the fans who had just cheered for him. Public opinion came down upon him like a roundhouse punch. He was labeled a traitor, a coward, un-American.
Ali could have taken a dive. Denied his Islamic faith. Fled to Canada. Instead, for almost four years Ali fought another battle, in the courts and in 1971 he finally won, in what may have been his greatest match of all. The Supreme Court ruled 8-0, that Ali’s beliefs were sincerely held and legitimate. A knockout for religious freedom. Maybe that’s what it means to be “great”, beyond being able to throw a punch or take a punch. Standing up for your beliefs. Sacrificing your own good for a greater good.
Makes me wonder about how so often we humans and the culture just get it wrong when it comes to being “great” or boasting of “greatness” or thinking that something or someone is just so “great”. Cheap greatness I’d call it. False greatness. Pseudo-greatness.
Like politicians, celebs, athletes, the ones who strut and declare just how “great” they are, and not just at doing some things but instead, everything. Why the need to bluster so? To boast? To contemptuously dismiss others as not so great, all to convince yourself that you are so great? To puff one’s self up like a preening peacock? Memo. If you have to remind people constantly just how great you are there’s a great chance you aren’t really all that great.
Is a “great” life one in which we make millions of dollars? Invent some app or device that’s hip or hot but which finally does not add much goodness to life? Is it “great” to accumulate material goods while others go poor? “Great” to live a life centered on one’s self alone? Funny what we humans think is so “great” in the larger scheme of things. Power. Prestige. Physical appearance. Status.
Jesus was once asked just who was the “greatest” among his followers. His answer? He took the hand of a little child and said, “Whoever welcomes this child…for the least among all of you is the greatest.” Didn’t see that spiritual punch coming.
Far beyond the narrow confines of a boxing ring, Ali was truly “The Greatest” and perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us. For there is “great”. And then there is great. Which do we aspire to in this life?
Rest in peace champ.