The legendary Muhammad Ali died this past Friday [June ] due to respiratory complications. He lived a long and prosperous life putting up a good fight in and out the ring. Ali made many contributions to the sport of boxing, America, and the African American culture as a whole. But his conversion to Islam in the 1960s was the most courageous, rebellious, yet highly progressive move for an African American athlete who had achieved global celebrity status.
That was the turning point in his career that proved his integrity out of the ring meant as much to him, if not more, than the reputation he put on the line each time the bell rang for him to fight a new opponent. Such character made Ali a true role model and inspired others to want to follow in his footsteps one way or another.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who also converted to Islam during his early adult life, was privileged enough to meet, learn and befriend Ali before he died. He took to his Facebook account to share with the world what Ali’s mentorship meant to him. He so eloquently stated:
In Memoriam of Muhammad Ali
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
During my more than 50 years in the public eye, I have met hundreds of renowned celebrities, artists, athletes, and world leaders. But only a handful embodied the self-sacrificing and heroic qualities that defined my friend and mentor, Muhammad Ali. A master of self-promotion, he declared early in his boxing career, I am the greatest! This kind of boasting enraged many people, just as he’d hoped, ensuring a large audience that just wanted to see this upstart boy taught a lesson.
But it was Muhammad who taught the lesson because, as he once said, It’s not bragging if you can back it up. And back it up, he did. Again and again. And not just in the ring. Part of Muhammad’s greatness was his ability to be different things to different people. To sports fans he was an unparalleled champion of the world, faster and smarter than any heavyweight before. To athletes, he was a model of physical perfection and shrewd business acumen. To the anti-establishment youth of the 1960s, he was a defiant voice against the Vietnam War and the draft.
To the Muslim community, he was a pious pioneer testing America’s purported religious tolerance. To the African-American community, he was a Black man who faced overwhelming bigotry the way he faced every opponent in the ring: fearlessly. At a time when Blacks who spoke up about injustice were labeled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right. In doing so, he made all Americans, Black and white, stand taller. I may be 7’2″ but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.
Today we bow our heads at the loss of a man who did so much for America. Tomorrow we will raise our heads again remembering that his bravery, his outspokenness, and his sacrifice for the sake of his community and country lives on in the best part of each of us.
It’s obvious that Ali’s impact was valued long before his death but the imprint he has on the culture is forever. May he rest in heavenly peace.