The word ‘legend’ is often overused. However when it comes to three-time former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali, it’s an apt description. He was a true giant of the sport. His recent passing provides an opportunity to learn some invaluable lessons. One of them is this; sometimes in order to win a victory, we need to be willing to lose some battles along the way. Let me explain.

The most famous Muhammed Ali boxing match was fought in 1974. It was billed as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’. Ali’s opponent on this occasion was George Foreman. Foreman had been the world heavyweight champion for 2 years at this point. During this time, no match that he’d fought had gone longer than two rounds. He destroyed every opponent he faced and dominated the sport. But along came the former champion, Muhammad Ali. Now at the grand old age of 32, he was by this stage well past his prime, a little slower and not as agile as what he’d once been. But still, a serious challenge – far more dangerous than anyone Foreman had faced so far in his reign as champion.

Foreman’s tactic was the usual; go in hard and win a quick victory over Ali. After all, that’s how he’d dealt with every other opponent over the previous two years. Foreman knew Ali wasn’t quite the ‘float like a butterfly’ boxer he’d once been. However he badly underestimated his opponent. Ali’s tactic was simple…get in there, take the biggest beating of his life, defend himself, hang on for dear life, lose some rounds – and then when the opportunity arose, STRIKE. And that is exactly what happened.

As Foreman went in for the quick win in those early rounds, he over-exhausted himself. As the match went on, Foreman became weaker and weaker. Meanwhile, Ali cleverly exploited this, taunting Foreman with words like ‘is that the best you’ve got?’ Then in round 8, as Foreman was tiring and faint, Ali did what he could still do with devastating effect. After rounds & rounds of defeats, he seized his moment and stung like a bee! And man did he sting with pin-point accuracy! In one moment, everything changed. From what looked like the depths of defeat, that right hook had once again earned Ali another famous KO. The old champ was back. The legend lived on.

Sometimes in life, we’ve got to be willing to lose in order to win. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume that defeat is the end of the story. It’s not. Hold your nerve. Keep going. Keep believing. Keep praying. Keep showing up. Remember, God is with you. Your lowest moment is not the final verdict. 

George Foreman had made a huge tactical error in the 1974 match against Ali. He’d become dependent on quick victories. This is what had worked for him throughout his reign as champion. However it was because Foreman didn’t pace himself for the long haul that he lost to Ali. He’d exerted all his energies in the first few rounds. But he hadn’t planned for longevity. By round 8, he had nothing left to give and succumbed to defeat.

Lots of people invest all their energies into getting quick results. There’s an impatience and ambition that, in many ways, is admirable. But little thought is given to the long haul. Truth is, the crowd will always find Charisma far more attractive than character. Quick results and easy victories are pleasant to the eye. Charisma has a certain pizzazz about it that actually attracts the crowd – until of course, it loses a battle. Then the crowd turns. And the truth is…not every battle will yield an easy victory. Foreman found this to his cost. He lost that day and spent the next 20 years in regret.

In the short term, people admire charisma. In the long term, people respect character. While charisma goes for the fast win, character aims for longevity. Charisma tires quickly. Character is like a fine wine, it just keeps getting better and better. And here’s a truth that may come as a shock to many. Ready? There are NO quick fixes with God. What he does is ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’. Until we learn this, we will never reach anything like our full potential. Lots of people want success NOW! But it’s not the way God works. Longevity and faithfulness matter to God – REALLY matter. If we’re going here, there and everywhere in search of a quick fix and we’re NOT truly submitted to God’s building process, then we are well and truly out of sync with the Almighty. Muhammed Ali set his heart on longevity. He lost many rounds but in the end, he won a great victory.

The Rumble in the Jungle of 1974 became more like ‘humbled in the jungle’ for George Foreman. The 24 year old had got it all wrong. Yet in the midst of it all, he learnt a powerful lesson about pacing himself for the long haul. And that’s the thing about George Foreman that earns him so much respect today – he learnt the lesson. How do we know? Because 20 years later in 1994 at the grand old age of 44 when boxers should be retired, George Foreman went on to become the world heavyweight champion once again, the greatest comeback in the history of professional boxing.

We would do well to learn the lessons too. Don’t be fooled by easy victories. It’s what happens in the long term that REALLY counts. As Paul the apostle neared the end of his life, he looked back and said ‘I have fought the good fight’.

Like Ali, it’s the long haul that we need to focus on in life. That’s where the real victories are won. Faithfulness, consistency, longevity…they really matter.

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