For as long as humans have been interested in recognizing athletic excellence, versatility has been a highly valued trait.
Amidst our canonization of Michael Jordan the basketball player and Babe Ruth the baseball slugger and Muhammad Ali the boxer, there is also room in the conversation for Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe, Charlie Ward, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Deion Sanders, Dave Winfield, Jackie Robinson — athletes who have excelled in two or more sports at a world-class level. There is a good reason why the reigning Olympic champions in the men’s decathlon (10 events) and women’s heptathlon (seven) are referred to as the world’s greatest male and female athletes.
So when we debate active athletes, in addition to LeBron James and Mike Trout and Tom Brady, don’t forget about Sonny Bill Williams — the 30-year-old pro rugby star and undefeated heavyweight boxer from New Zealand who is a relatively recent convert to Islam.
When New Zealand defeated Australia 34-17 in the championship match of the Rugby World Cup on Oct. 31, Williams joined some elite company. The win over Australia was the 14th consecutive winning World Cup match Williams had been a part of, a record he shares with teammates Jerome Kaino and Sam Whitelock. Williams also became one of 18 rugby players in history to win two World Cup titles.
In the boxing ring, the 6-foot-4 and 238-pound Williams is 7-0 as a pro with three knockouts. His most recent fight was on Jan. 31, when he beat Chauncey Welliver of the U.S. via unanimous decision.
While he is currently one of the most popular athletes in his country and in his primary sport (rugby), Williams wasn’t always a fan favorite. Due to some widely criticized and business decisions and a reputation for selfishness, he was basically the LeBron of New Zealand as far as being a polarizing figure and a lightning rod for criticism.
Williams’ softer image and improved attitude can be traced to his 2008 conversion to Islam, according to Australian middleweight boxer Anthony Mundine, a fellow Muslim and friend of Williams. From the Sydney Morning Herald:
“Everyone’s quick to judge when somebody’s in the spotlight,” Mundine said of Williams’ past indiscretions. “He went through times when he was young and made bad mistakes but who doesn’t?
“But then he changed his life around and found Islam … and it’s been nothing but serenity for him now.”
Mundine has been by Williams’ side for the best part of a decade. He was one of his staunchest supporters during the Bulldogs saga in 2008. He even loaned him the $750,000 payout fee Canterbury demanded so Williams could be free to begin his rugby career in Toulon.
It was during his time in the south of France when Williams converted to Islam. In an interview with CNN in 2013, the dual international revealed how becoming a “true Muslim” gave him happiness.
“It’s made me become content as a man and helped me to grow,” he told the US news channel. “I’ve just got faith in it and it has definitely helped me become the man I am today.”
Mundine, a fellow Muslim, believes the pillars of the religion have helped bring out the best in him.
“I know from a hands on point of view because it had the same affect on me when I reverted back to Islam and chose to learn the fundamentals of it,” he said. “If you really delve deep into Islam you’ll see you have to be pious, you have to be humble, you have to be generous to your fellow human beings.
“He had those qualities anyway but it (Islam) just reinforces those qualities.”
Leading up to the Rugby World Cup, adidas released this video feature on Williams, one of the company’s featured athletes: