THE GREATEST MARKETER OF ALL TIME: MUHAMMAD ALI
Photo: Time Archives
Muhammad Ali is the greatest marketer of all time. He simply told people, “I am the Greatest.” He made it known, loud and clear, that he was the greatest in the sport of boxing, and he was saying that at the age of 20.
And at his retirement, after winning the heavyweight crown three different times (a record that remains this day), he proved his comments were true. Even to this day, he is acknowledged by everyone in the sport of boxing as the Greatest of all time.
One of my favorite quotes from Ali: “Some people say I’m cocky, they say I talk too much, and that I need a good whoopin’. But anything I say, I’m willing to back up.” This is why I think Muhammad is one of the greatest marketers of all time: his product delivered as promised. He talked a big talk, but he backed it up every step of the way.
Marketers and companies are really good at promising great things. A business claims that their product is going to help you, a politician claims to change society for the better, a school claims to build life-long learners. However, the business, politician, and school often do not deliver as promised. In many instances, the marketing is much better than the product. People get the word out, they claim that their product is amazing and going to change things, but it just doesn’t deliver. The problem is that many organizations spend more time developing their marketing instead of developing their product.
This then creates an annoying occurrence that I see daily: poor products combined with great marketing. There is a chasm between what is promised and what is delivered, and this is because too many people spend their time trying to get the word out. Of course, this is a natural reaction when there are so many products against which an organization must compete. There are so many voices that everyone is trying yell louder and spread their message. As more organizations focus on amplifying their voices, few are focusing on having a product that delivers. But not Muhammad Ali. He proved he was the Greatest by living it out.
Ali spent more time developing his product than he did talk about it. He was tireless in his training, relentless in his focus, and disciplined in his eating. How long did it take him to say “I am the Greatest”? About 3 seconds. How long did it take him to back that up? A lifetime.
I think we can all learn from this lesson that Muhammad Ali lived and taught through his actions: spend more time developing your product, organization, or school, and less time telling everyone else about it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ali’s skill in marketing is only part of the reason why I like him so much. In him, he embodies so much of an era that I never knew. He brought with him into the ring a confluence of many powerful and turbulent forces: the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Islam/Christian tension, Racial tension, Business and Society. He gracefully danced around all of these forces with a singular and powerful voice, a voice that proclaimed, “I won’t be who you want me to be!”
Muhammad was not a sheep. He did not blindly follow those who told him what to do but instead fearlessly pursued his dream and his vision. And lest you think he was a rogue spirit doing whatever he wanted, you should watch “When We Were Kings” and listen to him talk about his motivation for fighting George Foreman (Ali was supposed to get annihilated by Foreman. Ali had passed his prime, and Foreman destroyed everyone in his path, including Norton and Fazier, who were the two fighters to beat Ali.) Ali states:
“I want to fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little black brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors in America, for black people who have nothing to eat, for black people who have no knowledge of themselves...I can help a lot of people...God is blessing me through this accident of boxing to help me get to all these people. I can get all these films and take all these pictures and I can bring all of this back to America to help our people...but it is good to be a winner. All I have to do is whip George Foreman.
I got a power now. I’ve got a power even I'm not going to realize until after (the fight). I might look at the film and say, 'how did I do that?”. Allah, God, I'm his tool, God got in me. My purpose is my people. This man (Foreman) looks slow. God has made this man look like a little kid. A so-called right hand ain't nothing now. I don't even feel it! I've got no fear. I walk right in and take my shots because I have God on my mind. I'm thinkin' about how my people have been free and how many people I can help with just one fight. Now he looks little in comparison to what I'm getting' from it! He ain't nothin' now!
But if I think just about me, I get scared. If I think about how George Foreman knocked out Joe Frazier like he was God, and he knocked out Ken Norton, and the white press, the power structure, ranked me to get tired in 5 or 6 (rounds)…then I go in (the ring) like Norton and Frazier and get scared.
But I'm not lookin' at the world and what they say. My God controls the universe.”
In the fight, Ali let Foreman throw blow after blow on his body, but it didn’t do any damage (remember that quote above: “A so-called right hand ain’t nothing now. I don’t even feel it.”) Still dancing on his feet, Ali knocked out Foreman in the 8th round, making it one of the greatest upsets of all time, and in the process, Ali continued on his path as the greatest boxer (and marketer) of all time.
Not many people are convinced they can “shake up the world” like Ali. Not many people are convinced that they can be an instrument through which Grace can flow and goodness can shine. But Ali’s example shows us that we can be more. He shows us that our work is only a tool for something greater than ourselves, and this is the true legacy of Muhammad Ali. He knew this would be his legacy, he even said it, and now, as Parkinson’s consumes his nervous system, this shaking giant is living it. He is the Greatest.
Photo: Time Archives