News of the death of Muhammad Ali has reverberated around the world these past few days. His was a life not just to be noted in its passing, and the breadth of coverage has its roots in the breadth of his impact way beyond sport. The i’s headline gives a good indication of that.
There has been no-one quite like him. I can recall kicking a ball round a waterlogged field in Bangladesh years ago with some youngsters whose main ‘English’ word was ‘Maradona’. Like Ali, Maradona was blessed with sporting genius which led to worldwide fame but, unlike Ali, he had little else to offer.
In some ways, the closest parallel with Ali might be Nelson Mandela. A black man standing firm in a white-dominated society; someone willing to take risks and make sacrifices; someone able to cross barriers, stepping beyond the sporting or political world successfully through sheer force of personality; a global symbol, but a symbol with substance arising from a moral vision of the world.
Try to imagine a current Premier League footballer or British politician achieving broad acclaim in a similar way and you begin to realise the scale of what Ali and Mandela accomplished. Think internationally, and while there may be a hint of Mandela in Barack Obama, Usain Bolt and Ali bear comparison only in a sporting terms.
Alongside the other causes he advanced, Ali was an incorrigible promoter of himself who somehow managed to get away with it through a combination of immense self-belief and a sparkling sense of humour. ‘I am the greatest!’ – as a boxer, he meant, and it was hard to argue. But the outpouring over his death has, with some reason, elevated him way beyond this.
And yet, who really is the greatest? For Christians, Ali’s most famous catchphrase has always seemed to beg the question. Not Ali v. Maradona, Bolt or even Mandela but, in the blue corner, any merely human being (however great) versus, in the red corner, Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, Saviour of the world. For us, it’s no contest!
Jesus lived with a group of inveterate self-promoters (as indeed most of us are, in our own small ways). His disciples were keen to know which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, each hoping perhaps for their teacher’s seal of approval. So Jesus had to point them to the greatness of humility (see Luke 9:46-48).
And ultimately these men came to realise the full extent of their foolish pride. They were transformed, not just through the revolutionary teaching of Jesus but through the revolutionary power of his life.
For one thing, the followers of Jesus witnessed unparalleled holiness, a life of complete purity. ‘Pull the other one,’ you say, ‘every human being has their imperfections, even the most devoted followers of Ali or Mandela can see that.’ True – except that in Jesus’ case, more than humanity was involved. Jesus claimed to come from heaven, and backed up his claim with divine authority through a range of miracles. For his disciples, Jesus’ willingness to die for them and his astonishing resurrection underlined his unique greatness, and more than that, his glory.
For all the praise he has received, Ali’s flaws – among the more obvious, broken relationships and the Nation of Islam come to mind – were visible to all. Those closest to Jesus had no doubts at all about his perfection, and so they told his story. If you want to find out who really is the greatest, it’s a story worth reading.
You can start to read the story of Jesus here.
You can read about the impact of Jesus on his followers, and how they began to tell his story here.