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Orrin Hatch: Muhammad Ali had many facets of greatness

Ahead of his first fight with Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali stood before a crowded pack of reporters and told the world unapologetically who he was: “I am the Greatest.” With this simple proclamation, Ali seized the pen of history and wrote his own title in the textbooks.

Ali’s doubters dismissed this declaration as mere braggadocio. But in the world of boxing, he truly was the greatest fighter ever to step in the ring. Yet to focus solely on his extraordinary athletic prowess is to see only half the man. Ali was a charismatic civil rights leader, an unwavering advocate for religious tolerance and an authentic emissary of Islam. He was a caring father, husband, brother and friend. It is as a longtime friend that I witnessed Ali’s greatness for myself.

The close friendship Ali and I developed over the course of three decades was puzzling to some, especially those who saw only our differences. But where others perceived difference, Ali and I found kinship. We were both dedicated to our families and deeply devoted to our faiths. We were both products of humble backgrounds and a hardscrabble youth. True, we were different in some obvious ways. But our differences fortified our friendship, and our shared sensibilities led to a rich and meaningful affection.

Among my fondest memories is when Ali joined me in Salt Lake to hear a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Ali loved music and enjoyed the choir’s hymns. But he was also eager to share his own religious beliefs with those in attendance. Ali always attracted big crowds and he dutifully gave each well-wisher an autographed pamphlet explaining his Muslim beliefs. Ali and I spoke about God and religion. I respected his deeply held convictions just as he respected mine, and our friendship was enriched by our respective faiths. Ali was open to goodness in all its varieties.

On another occasion, I took Ali to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. We visited with downtrodden children whose suffering provided little occasion to smile — until Ali showed up. When Ali held those kids and looked into their eyes, they would grin from ear to ear. The nurses were astounded; never before had they seen someone who connected so immediately and profoundly with those children. Ali had a special way with kids. He may have been tough and tenacious in the ring, but he was compassionate and tender around those he loved.

So dedicated was Ali to our friendship that he joined me on the campaign trail during several election cycles, and he came to Utah year after year to raise funds for a charity benefitting women and children in need. Ali didn’t look at life through the binary lens of Republican versus Democrat so common today. Instead, he saw worthy causes and shared humanity. In Ali’s willingness to put people before partisanship, he showed us all the path to greatness.

There were many facets to Muhammad Ali’s greatness: his abilities as a boxer, his charisma as a public figure, his benevolence as a father and as a friend. All of these things made Ali great, but it was something else that made him the Greatest.

In my mind, Ali was the Greatest because — as a debilitated yet unbroken champion in his later years — he pointed us to a greatness beyond ourselves, a greatness beyond even Ali. He pointed us to the greatness of God.

God raised up Ali to be the greatest fighter of all time. Yet he allowed Ali to wrestle with Parkinson’s disease, an inescapable reminder that we are all mortal and that we are all dependent on God’s grace. Ali believed this himself. He once told me, “God gave me this condition to remind me always that I am human and that only he is the Greatest.”

Although Ali’s body inevitably succumbed to Parkinson’s, his spirit never surrendered. He continued fighting long after he hung up his boxing gloves, becoming a beacon of compassion and humanity to millions across the globe. His dignity amid suffering demonstrated the indomitability of the human spirit.

The foundation of Ali’s inner strength was his faith in our Creator — a faith that burned brightly to the very end. Indeed, through his faith, Ali taught us that true, lasting victory comes only through surrender to God. Ali was an unsurpassed symbol of our universal dependence on the divine. He was the Greatest because he reminded us all who is truly Greatest: God.

I am eternally grateful for my special bond with this special man. I pray that Ali may now rest peacefully in the presence of the Greatest of all.

Orrin Hatch is the senior U.S. senator from Utah.