By Mary Rezac
On January 19, 1981, in Los Angeles, Muhammad Ali talked a man down from jumping off a ninth-floor fire escape, an event that made national news.
“Former heavyweight champions slip out of the news as easily as ex-presidents, but Muhammad Ali was never your garden-variety champion of all the world,” Walter Cronkite said on the Jan. 20, 1981, edition of the CBS Evening News. “Yesterday in Los Angeles, he responded like a superhero when a distraught man threatened suicide.”
Ali told the distraught man that he was his brother, that he loved him and wanted to take him home to meet his friends. After half an hour, Ali had his arm around the man’s shoulder and led him to safety.
While boxing legend Muhammad Ali will go down in history as “The Greatest” fighter, some of his greatest fights – for hope, courage, and human dignity – took place outside the ring.
In 1984, at the age of 42 and just a few years into retirement from boxing, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Never one to accept defeat and with a keen ability to inspire hope in others, Ali used his diagnosis to raise awareness and funding for research on the progressive neurological disease.
But it was not just his fighting attitude, but his religious belief, that kept him moving forward.
Dawud Walid, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said Ali’s trust in God helped his perspective after receiving what would be a devastating diagnosis for someone who had been so active.
“He reflected a very strong faith in the face of that debilitating disease,” Walid told CNA.
“I remember him saying that he was humbled by God allowing him to have a disease, to show him who was really the greatest, that God is the greatest,” he said. “(Ali) would say there was a hidden blessing in it.”
By being so public about his diagnosis, Walid said Ali was able to show the world that one can still have courage and hope in the face of suffering.
“I remember him lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta, and he struggled and he was there shaking but it was really a sign of courage and a sign of hope not just to people who are struggling with Parkinson’s disease, but other diseases, that you still can have dignity in the face of such enormous challenges,” Walid said.
“A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or another movement disorder is not a death sentence,” reads a statement on Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center website.
The site also posted a tribute video to Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74, after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s patients in the video recall how Ali’s courage and generosity in the face of suffering changed their lives.
“I had no idea how much of a difference Muhammad Ali would make in my life. Now that I have Parkinson’s disease, his generosity has been a blessing for me personally,” a man says in the video.
“He never said ‘I can’t do this’, so that has become my motto too,” another patient says.
Besides his fighting record, charisma, and Parkinson’s advocacy, Ali is also remembered for his peaceful, although controversial, protest and resistance of the draft for the Vietnam war. Ali cited his Islamic religious beliefs, as well as racism, as his reasons for being a conscientious objector. He was arrested for draft evasion and unable to fight for four years while his case went through appeals court.
His appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1971 reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision that found the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali’s stance wasn’t motivated by religious belief.
Ali, who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, changed his name when, inspired by Malcolm X, he converted to the Nation of Islam, a controversial American Muslim sect that advocated racial separation and rejected the pacifism of most civil rights activism. He later switched to the more mainstream Sunni Islam.
Walid said that Ali openly talked about his belief in God and the virtues contained in all the world’s religions.
“He believed that if people lived by those virtues, especially the Golden Rule, then this earth would be a much better place.”
During his life, Ali met with religious people and leaders throughout the world of various persuasions and denominations, including, in 1982, St. John Paul II.
A sports fan himself, and an eventual Parkinson’s suffer as well, John Paul II exchanged autographs with the famed boxer during a private audience at the Vatican.
His legend for the Muslim community, Walid said, will be his non-violent protests and his bold but peaceful activism.
“We live in a society now in which people are now provoking violence and meeting those provocations with violence,” Walid said. “Muhammad Ali stood strong for his Islamic belief and against the unjust war in Vietnam, but he was peaceful in that regard.”
“Inside the ring he was a gladiator, and outside of the ring, he appealed to people’s moral consciousness,” he said.
“Given the era that Ali came from and the boldness and the resilience that he exhibited, it is doubtful that the American Muslim community will ever see the likes of an American Muslim like Muhammad Ali in our lifetime.”