The Rushmore Report: The Greatest

The date was October 30, 1974. The place – Kinshasa, Zaire. The event? The Rumble in the Jungle. Heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman stepped into the ring at 4 a.m. local time to defend his crown against an aging ex-champion by the name of Muhammad Ali. Foreman was a 3-1 favorite to win. But after seven rounds of the rope-a-dope, Ali attacked. Foreman went down. Ali was “The Greatest” – once again. And I was there, sort of. I was in the Houston Astrodome sitting with my brother, watching the fight on closed circuit television. The place went wild.

I’ll leave it to others to muse on Ali’s career, religion, and refusal to register for the draft. This is about that one night. George Foreman was the undefeated champion. He had destroyed Joe Frazier twice, both by early round knock-outs . . . the same Joe Frazier who beat Ali once and whom Ali never knocked down.

I offer two reflections on that night.

1. People want a cause to support. The Houston crowd, numbered at 50,000, was solidly behind Ali, rooting against their hometown man, George Foreman. Why? Because Ali stood for a cause. He was the face of the Vietnam resistance, Islam, and black America. People follow a man who stands for a cause. In the Bible, we see dozens of examples of this. Moses stood on a mountain. Joshua stood at the river bed. Elisha stood on a mountain. David stood in a valley. And Jesus stood by the lake. Every time they stood, it was for a cause. And that changed the world. People loved Ali because he stood for something.

2. What this world gives, it also takes away. The world that crowned Ali “The Greatest” also gave us the disease that took his speech, movement, and eventually, his life. Man crowned Ali “The Greatest.” It turns out the crown was just temporary. It always is.

A few years ago, I was walking through the Galleria Mall in Houston. Then I looked up, and standing a few feet away was Muhammad Ali. He was posing for pictures as he sold his signature cologne. I didn’t have the time to stand in line to meet him, so I just paused and watched. And I’ll never forget what I saw. The Champ, seated and weak with his advanced illness, saw a lady with her baby a few feet away. He got her attention, then slowly stood and reached across the security rope to the passer-by. He asked to hold her baby. The woman was overcome. Ali reached over, picked up the baby, kissed her cheek, and with that ever-present gleam in his eye, returned the baby to her mother.

For that moment, the smile on his face was intact. So was his crown. He was “The Greatest.” For millions around the world he always will be.

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