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Who Really Is The Greatest? Part 1

Muhammed Ali

by bryan Dench

“Everyone who exalts himself, will be humbled; but the one who humbles himself, will be exalted.” Luke 18:14

Muhammed Ali’s death brought an outpouring of adulation. We respect the dead, but Ali was a man who, in my view, did much in the 1960s to debase the character of sport. Ali appeared to be the first great athlete who so flamboyantly violated all the received expectations for humility and gratitude.

Unquestionably Ali was a superb athlete - probably the greatest boxer of all time. As a kid, I enjoyed seeing his fights when I could. I rooted for him, because he was such a great athlete, despite his demeanor.

But I never cared for his arrogance and bombast. I recognized even then he was doing serious damage to the character of sport here and around the world. He roared, “I am the greatest,” even before he’d won much of anything. His public appearances were disgraceful. He was in the face of opponents, predicting how he would humiliate Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and anyone else entering the ring with him. Because he was so good he mostly delivered on his predictions.

Contrary to what coaches and parents taught, Ali established the principle it was good to boast, to gloat and to prance as long as you won.

He was the exact opposite of such excellent athletes as Jesse Owens, Roger Bannister, Johnny Unitas, Oscar Robertson, Roger Staubach, Jackie Robinson, or Lou Gehrig and the other true superstar athletes who were the face of American sport.

Thanks to Ali, it quickly changed.

Joe Namath

Quarterback Joe Namath was the Ali of football, boasting and showing off before his Jets won a Superbowl. Brats Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe almost permanently debased tennis.

We could name others in all sports who quickly followed the Ali mode of braggadocio and pride, gloating over opponents. Now gloating is the standard, not an exception, in football and other sports. I can’t watch NFL games without being disgusted at the displays made after every tackle or the showboating in the end zone after a score. On the world scene, watching Usain Bolt at the Olympics combined an amazing athletic performance with shoddy personal behavior.

The examples are many, though happily some athletes still display remarkable character and poise. It was gratifying to see solid Christian athletes like Tamika Catchings competing well and standing up for Jesus in Rio. You see amazing soccer stars like Brazil’s Kaka openly proclaiming their faith.

As the old saying goes, sports do not so much build character as reveal it (or its absence).

Hockey Image 1

It’s funny but there is less of the XXX in hockey than perhaps any other sport. The heroes of hockey are players like Bobby Orr, named the best NHL defenseman in 8 of 10 seasons, a gracious and humble man to this day. Or Wayne Gretzky, who despite his amazing talent never seemed to gloat in the style of Ali and his heirs.

We know hockey is a so-called minor sport, but where were the over the top paeans to Gordie Howe in Hollywood, the national media, and all the sports world when he died? For a lifetime of athletic achievement, I’d put number 9 up there with Ali or any other athlete. But he wasn’t a loudmouth, glamor boy, or political hero. He just played hard and competed and spoke humbly when he did.

The public persona of most hockey stars is gracious and humble. They may not all be great guys outside the limelight, and I don’t know how many are walking with the Lord (though a significant number are). But at least their public demeanor is usually much more self-effacing and constructive than in other sports today.


I don’t know what explains it. Hockey players are fallen human beings like everyone. Maybe it’s the degree to which families have to come together to support young players (long, cold hours at the rink, etc.) But though much remains to do, the general visible character of hockey players is better than in just about any other sport.

That’s a hopeful thing. We need to do more as coaches and athletes. It is encouraging to those of us who are dedicated to FCA Hockey as an important influencer of young men and women and a ministry of ambassadorship for Jesus Christ.

  1. Is there a difference between gloating and the appropriate celebration of hard won successes?

  2. Are you able to play hard, and compete with joy and yet remain humble?

  3. How do you show humility?

  4. Remember, “humility comes before honor.” Proverbs 18:12