Muhammad Ali was my only hero.
Quite how a semi-educated boxer turned Muslim activist from Louisville, Kentucky resonated with little old me in little old Essex, England is hard to fathom.
It’s not like he was tweeting the night he beat Leon Spinks to become world heavyweight champion for an unprecedented third time.
My formative era with Ali was the late 70s/early 80s when the Commodore 64 was the pinnacle of telecommunications for me. While Ali’s fights were restricted to Saturday afternoon sports shows and his personality was only seen very occasionally on talk shows. No You Tube, just three TV channels and newspapers whose ink came off on your fingers.
But somehow, despite barely ever being on the same continent, he connected with thousands of us outside of the USA. Hence the outpouring of emotion at his passing this week.
The phrase is chronically overused but Ali did transcend his sport. One of his methods was to employ many tenants of current social media best practice long before there was any silicon in the valley. Here are some examples.
Ali was the greatest showman any sport has ever seen. The wrestler Gorgeous George inspired the pre-fight patter for which Ali became famous. He eschewed the respect and politeness shown by previous pugilists before bouts. Instead he made fun of his opponents predicted the round of their demise. He did not hold press conferences, he just held court. While banned from boxing following his refusal to enlist for the Vietnam war, Ali even sung on Broadway in the musical Buck White. Then, of course, there was the Ali shuffle – a dance move during bouts to belittle his opponent and excite the crowd.
Ali was funny, truly funny – on TV, in sport and in life. Here’s a great example of his wit. Scored at just 78, the boxer’s IQ had been initially too low for active military service in the Vietnam War. But this video shows his street smarts trumping academic smarts.
Then there was the poetry.
Engaging on all levels
Ali wanted to be remembered, “As a man who never looked down on those who looked down on those who looked up to him”. He jousted with heavyweight interviewers such as Howard Cosell and Michael Parkinson but appeared to remain, at heart, a conjurer doing tricks for children. Lots of his most popular moments on YouTube involve kids.
He also appealed for tolerance across race, class and income disparities. Of course his early days with the Nation of Islam had a militant edge but, in his later years, he framed his beliefs as benign. The violence of sport was juxtaposed against his message of peace.
Leon Gast’s “When we were Kings” is the greatest sporting documentary ever made. It tells the story of the Rumble in the Jungle, arguably Ali’s greatest win. The fight and its accompanying music festival took place in Zaire in 1974 during the dictatorship of President Mobutu. The logistics were staggeringly difficult and the bout itself was postponed for six weeks while Foreman recovered from a cut. Despite all this, the access Ali afforded was wide open and brutally honest. You see moments of, humor, tension, wild self-belief and, dare we say it, a little self-doubt in the challenger. But the overwhelming images are his runs with the streetkids. He was engaging, human and charismatic. This was the Ali we feel we knew and we certainly loved because he was so open.
Ali understood visual content. The best example came in 1961 when Flip Schulke took this picture of the fighter’s supposedly 'advanced underwater resistance' training methods.
Ali stood motionless on the bottom of the pool and held his breath while the shots were taken. He had to because he couldn’t swim and the event had all been a ruse to get greater publicity as the fighter rose through the ranks. Thankfully, Schulke and Life Magazine fell for it.
Like every social media practitioner knows, a good picture tells its own story. Ali made up the idea, rang the photographer and spun the tale.
Sonny Liston was the Bear, George Foreman was the Mummy and, most controversially, Joe Frazier was the Gorilla. Ali’s caricatures were often cruel and, in the last example, racially tinged. But, in modern parlance, these would have been his emoji or Snapchat filters. Either way they were crucial storytelling tool.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
“The man who has no imagination has no wings.”
“It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it's the pebble in your shoe.”
These are some of the greatest sayings of Ali and they are all under 140 characters. Of course they have been mediated and edited over time from long soliloquies however they have stuck in our consciousness because they were purposeful, poetic and poignant.
Ali prepared his best off-the-cuff remarks as soundbites (or stole them from cornerman Budini Brown as in the butterfly/bee quote) and repeated them often.
Ali’s brash pronouncements had given him the nickname of the “Louisville Lip” before he won his first title against Sonny Liston in 1964. The champion was disliked too and it was dubbed as a bout that the public wanted neither to win. Straight after his victory, Cassius Clay announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam and became Muhammad Ali. The fighter had taken the strongest possible stance on the most divisive issue in the US at the time – race. A few years later, Ali refused to be drafted to Vietnam as he “had no quarrel with the Vietcong”. It won him new supporters from a certain strata of American society but alienated the majority. And, of course, he was banned from boxing for three years.
Standing up for your beliefs and arguing your case will get you noticed.
Backing it up
Of course, content is hollow unless supported. And, boy, could Ali fight. He was a boxer before his ban and more of a tactician after it. He fought the best when there was only one world title at stake.
He defied the unbeatable George Foreman in Zaire and near-death to outlast Joe Frazier in Manila.
He religious beliefs were genuine and he retained them until his death. In fact they reportedly gave him an enviable serenity as Parkinson’s syndrome took over. His love for people was authentic too. Remember he was signing autographs “to eat” during periods of his retirement after profligate years as champion. The champ was over generous with time for fans and with money for his entourage.
Of course, had social media existed in his time then Ali's reputation may not have been so revered. Brazen affairs would have been uncovered and Ali would have attracted world champion trolls. Fiery interviews in his youth suggest he would have responded, and remember, though Ali was hugely admirable, he was no saint.
Personal brand building is a modern phenomenon and it is executed via social and digital means. Ali had no such instant mass communication.
‘All’ he had was his fists, his beliefs, his character, his eloquence, his charm and his work ethic.
These days social media, ubiquitous cameras and the currency of gossip opens up celebrities to a different type of scrutiny. No-one of any stature gets out unscathed.
For that reason – as much as his incredible blend of talent and charisma - we will never see the like of Muhammad Ali again.
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