Muhammad Ali: The Greatest

The Greatest at Personal Branding

On Saturday I woke up to the news that Muhammad Ali, arguably one of the most well-known sports figures of all time had passed away. My first reaction was a bit of surprise as I had been fairly unaware of his detiriorating condition. My next thoughts went instantly to the highlight reel in my head of the best moments, quotes, and interviews with the legendary loudmouth. As I Googled my way through the classics a new thought began to enter my marketing mind…

I was front-row firsthand witnessing a master of personal branding. As I reflected on this fact I tried to put my finger on a few of the reasons why I found myself admiring this master marketer. Here are the five big takeaways that I believe make Ali “the greatest” even in the world of personal branding.

Ali was bold

No one would ever accuse Ali of not speaking his mind. One interview would quickly prove that Ali was bold in his approach. He spoke frequently about his abilities and his talents. But not just bold in words. Muhammed was bold in other areas of his life as well. He stood by what he believed whether that was related to religion, politics, or boxing. After beginning life as Cassius Clay he boldly changed his name in response to his conversion to Islam. When the United States attempted to force Cassius to join the military during the war he boldly stood up for his beliefs, not to be defiant, but to be resolute and true to his own beliefs.

Ali was creative

As I stated in the beginning one of the first things that came to my mind when I thought back on the life of Muhammad Ali was his colorful and creative use of language and even poetry. I’m sure almost everyone knows at least one famous quote which began “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” (Can you finish the couplet?) Ali never failed to flash a great big smile before dropping some creative rhymed taunt aimed at his opponents. He used this creative talent to make his name and his brand memorable and enduring for generations.

“I wrestled with an alligator, I tussled with a whale, I handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail, I’m bad man….Last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

Ali was not afraid of offending

Secondly, Muhammad was clearly unafraid of what others thought or what their reactions might be to his life and his vocal outspokenness. This was not because he didn’t care, but more that he was so completely compelled to be himself and share those beliefs he was not deterred by the response he might receive. If someone was offended by him, well that was their right and freedom to be so. But that potential offense would not keep him from broadcasting his beliefs and speaking his opinion. The key thing to remember is what motivated him. He was driven incessantly by his beliefs and convictions. He didn’t offend just to offend someone, but he wasn’t afraid of offending when it contradicted his passionately held personal beliefs.

Ali owned up to defeat

While it might not have happened often there were a few times that Muhammad lost the fight. These were very telling moments for Ali. Rather than faking it or falsifying the truth the world renown fighter owned up to the defeat. He may not have humbly rolled over and claimed complete failure; but he did give credit to the victor. There’s plenty of evidence to this fact, one of the most memorable for me is an interview before his infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight. Ali praises a litany of his competitors for their victories in previous fights. It takes a big person to humbly accept praise in victory, it takes an even greater individual to be gracious in defeat.

Ali wrote his story

The last point I dwell on is perhaps the most important and also the most poignant. Ali was his own biggest promoter. He constantly referred to his skills, his abilities, his talent. He never sat back and let others describe his character or his performances. If Ali was in the room while someone was sharing something about him, Ali would immediately speak up (usually louder) to share his own opinion and view of himself. One of the most entertaining things to watch is any instance when Ali begins to pontificate on his own abilities and his greatness. And here’s where I think we learn a valuable lesson from Muhammad Ali. He branded himself as “The Greatest” – this was a self-claimed title. And yet, within hours of his passing, the branding he had worked on building his entire life, the story he had spent every interview instilling in his audience was fixed and established forever. “The Greatest” had died.

This is the ultimate in personal branding. Ali provides us with an excellent example on how to brand ourselves. We must be bold to share what we believe. We must be creative in how we share those beliefs. We must not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in (even when that boldness is potentially considered offensive by some). We must be gracious when acknowledging the successes of our competitors And finally, we must never give up writing our own story. Tell the world what you want them to know about you. Craft your own successful image. Be relentless in the pursuit of your goals and be intentional in sharing your story with others.

The world has lost one of the greatest sports figures of all time. Perhaps even the greatest. But the lessons we can learn from this persuasive, powerful master of their brand will continue on forever.