“I know that beating George Foreman and conquering the world with my fists does not bring freedom to my people. I am well aware that I must go beyond all this and prepare myself for more. I know,” said Muhammed Ali, “that I enter a new arena.” So spoke Ali summing up the significance for himself of reclaiming the Heavyweight Championship just hours after the 1974 fight held in Kinshasa, capital of the then Zaire.
Before the long awaited match of the powerful, younger Foreman and the cagey former champ, Muhammed Ali had reflected publicly on the larger role he assumed with his conversion to Islam and refusal of induction to the Army. “If I win”, he declared, “I’m going to be the black Kissinger. It’s full of glory, but it’s tiresome. Every time I visit a place, I got to go by the schools, by the old folks’ home. I’m not just a fighter, I’m a world figure to these people.”
During the month-long delay of the fight, Ali had plenty of time in Kinshasa to carry out and describe further his mission as a “world figure”. As the excitement mounted, a few days prior to the bout he said, “Nobody is ready to know what I’m up to. People in America just find it hard to take a fighter seriously.” He then issued an alert, “They don’t know that I’m using boxing for the sake of getting over certain points you couldn’t get over without it. Being a fighter enables me to attain certain ends. I’m not doing this,” he revealed, “for the glory of fighting, but to change a lot of things.”
In his interpretation of the pronouncements and ever expanding persona of Ali before and after the Foreman fight, Norman Mailer wrote, “Was he still a kid from Louisville talking, talking, through the afternoon, and for all anyone knew through the night, talking through the ungovernable anxiety of a youth seized by history to enter the dynamos of history? Or was he in full process of becoming that most unique phenomenon, a twentieth century prophet, and so the anger and the fear of his voice was that he could not teach, could not convince, could not convince?”
Reading Mailer’s account in The Fight of his grappling with Ali’s meaning to people in Congo and the rest of the world, this reader felt the writer had come closest to the measure, the legacy of the recently deceased champ. Mailer wrote, “One only had to open to the possibility that Ali had a large mind rather than a repetitive mind and was ready for oncoming chaos, ready for the volcanic disruptions that would boil through the world in these approaching years of pollution, malfunction and economic disaster.” It seems Mailer had to go to Congo to learn to understand and accept that this “prophet” had been shaped and prepared by his Muslim faith and co-believers.
Mailer confessed in his book, “He (Mailer) had implicitly kept waiting for some evidence that Ali was not a Black Muslim, not really, and that was absurd. It was time to recognize that being a Black Muslim might be the core of Ali’s existence and the center of his strength. What was one to do about that?” On his flight back to the States Mailer was confronted by stunning evidence that the Muslim world claimed Ali as one of them.
Before landing in Dakar, capital of largely Muslim Senegal, the pilot announced they would divert to a remote airport runway to evade the couple of thousand persons waiting for the chance to greet what they thought was their champ’s plane. Undaunted, the crowd surrounded the plane and were persuaded to disperse only after a few were allowed to search thoroughly for Ali inside the aircraft.
In a time when Christians especially in the U.S. need greater understanding of Islam and its approximately 1.5 billion followers, it is unfortunate that very few obituaries paid homage to the depth and profound influence of the man’s faith. Prior to the fight in Kinshasa he had noted referring to his projected earnings, “I’m left with a million three. That ain’t no money. You give me a hundred million today, I’ll be broke tomorrow. We got a hospital we’re working on, a Black hospital being built in Chicago, costs fifty million dollars. My money goes into causes.” With little understanding of Islam, Mailer cannot escape the insight that Ali’s courage and integrity were founded on the bedrock of his Muslim faith.
In the end, it was that courage and integrity that won over his most bitter foes. In 1981 George Foreman reconciled with the man he had loathed since losing to him. Much later he recalled, “In 1981, a reporter came to my ranch and asked me: ‘What happened in Africa, George?’ I had to look him in the eye and say, “I lost. He beat me.”
Following that interview with the reporter, Foreman softened. “Before that I had nothing but revenge and hate on my mind, but from then on it was clear. I’ll never be able to win that match, so I had to let it go.” Foreman eventually concluded, in 2003: “[Ali is] the greatest man I’ve ever known. Not greatest boxer that’s too small for him. He had a gift. He’s not pretty he’s beautiful. Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.”  In response to Foreman’s statement we citizens of the U.S. in 2016 are left with the question, “What was one to do about that?”