»I am the Greatest!«
He went from being the most hated to one of the most revered athletes in the United States – a national icon. Muhammad Ali was the most famous athlete of the twentieth century and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world three times. His achievements in boxing were truly exceptional, but they weren’t the decisive factor behind his astounding popularity. Above all, Ali was a genius in the art of self-marketing.
Muhammad Ali – born Cassius Clay Jr. – was a major celebrity even before his first successful title fight against the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston, in 1964. A year before his victory, Time magazine (which then had a circulation of ten million) devoted a full front page to Clay. Time’s cover featured a drawing of Ali with his head raised in a cocky, challenging pose and his mouth open. Above Clay’s head, a pair of boxing gloves held a volume of poetry – an allusion to his habit of writing short verses. The lead article inside the magazine declared: “Cassius Clay is Hercules, struggling through the twelve labors. He is Jason chasing the Golden Fleece. He is Galahad, Cyrano, D’Artagnan. When he scowls, strong men shudder, and when he smiles, women swoon. The mysteries of the universe are his Tinker Toys. He rattles the thunder and loses the lightning.” At the time the article appeared, Clay was at the outset of his career. But even then, he wanted the world to know that he was the greatest, the most beautiful, and that no one could or would ever beat him.
A detailed computer analysis of film recordings of Ali’s fights revealed that he landed 61.4 percent of the punches he attempted during the first phase of his career, from 1960 to 1967. In the second phase of his career, from 1970 onward, he only landed 50 percent of attempted punches. The same analysis also compared the percentage of punches the leading fighters of the twentieth century landed compared to the percentage of punches landed by their opponents. On this measure, the highest ranked modern boxer was the welterweight Floyd Mayweather Jr., who scored an overall rating of plus-25.2 percentage points. Joe Frazier scored an impressive plus-18.9 percentage points. Muhammad Ali’s plus/minus rating was far worse, at negative-1.7 percentage points. Even when other factors are included in the statistical analysis, such as the number of power punches landed, Ali fails to rank among the best heavyweights in boxing history.
His biographer, Jonathan Eig, provides an honest assessment: “By all these statistical measures, the man who called himself ‘The Greatest’ was below average for much of his career.” Eig also raises another interesting question: “Did judges award him rounds that he didn’t deserve because he possessed a flashy style and seemed never to be hurt by his opponents’ punches? Was he winning rounds because he was the great Muhammad Ali?” In all honesty, some of his victories were controversial. As we know from other sports, referees and judges are not always unimpressed by the fame and charisma of a superstar athlete. The real reason that he was in with a chance of a title fight was his self-marketing genius. “Had he been an ordinary fighter with a record of seventeen wins and no losses against less than top competition, Clay would not have been in contention for a shot at the title,” explains Eig. But Clay was not like other boxers. His big mouth and his habit of accurately predicting in which round his opponents would fall to the canvas were as much a factor as his pretty face. But most importantly, Eig credits Ali’s rapid rise to the fact that he “became a sophisticated pitchman during a new age in marketing.”
Going back to the years before he entered the ring, Clay didn’t do well at school and had trouble reading and writing. In 1957, he took an IQ test and scored well below average. His high school diploma was nothing more than a “certificate of attendance,” the lowest degree his school could grant. He graduated 376th out of a graduating class of 391 in his year. In the mental aptitude portion of the military qualifying examination, Ali failed on his first two attempts and only became eligible for the army when the minimum score was lowered as the Vietnam War expanded. In 1990, at the age of 48, he even admitted that he had never read a book in his life.
The only thing he liked about school was the audience it gave him. “Attracting attention, showmanship, I liked that the most,” remembered Clay. “And pretty soon I was the popularist kid in school.”
It took him 20 to 30 minutes to read a newspaper article other people would manage in four or five minutes, but he had an incredible talent for public relations and, even as a young man, he outlined his media strategy and his approach to dealing with individual newspapers and journalists in exquisite detail.
Ali’s ingenuity in dealing with the media is perfectly illustrated by the time, early in his career, when he tricked the world into believing that he regularly trained underwater. In 1961, Sports Illustrated assigned a photographer, Flip Schulke, to take pictures of Clay. At one point, Clay asked Schulke which other magazines he worked for. Clay was excited to hear that the photographer’s pictures regularly appeared in Life, the highest circulation magazine in the United States at that time. Clay asked Schulke if he would photograph him for Life, but the photographer explained that he worked on assignment and would have to pitch the idea to his editors, who would most likely turn it down – this was, after all, still very early in Clay’s career. But Clay didn’t let up and asked Schulke about his other work. When the photographer revealed that he specialized in underwater photography, Clay told him a ‘secret’: “I never told nobody this, but me and Angelo have a secret. Do you know why I’m the fastest heavyweight in the world? I’m the only heavyweight that trains underwater.” Clay claimed that he worked out underwater for the same reason other athletes wear heavy shoes when they train. “Well, I get in the water up to my neck and I punch in the water, and when I get out of the water I’m lightning fast because there’s no resistance.” Schulke was suspicious at first, but Clay offered to let Schulke attend and take pictures of one of his underwater training sessions exclusively for Life. Schulke pitched Clay’s proposal to Life, who liked the idea of running an article on Clay’s unconventional underwater training routine. Of course, Clay had made up the entire story, but the success of his tall tale, namely a portrait in the highest circulation magazine in the United States, confirmed the effectiveness of Clay’s approach.
According to Neil Leifer, a sports photographer who frequently covered Ali and his fights, “Ali was a photographer’s dream … Ali knew how to pose. I think it was vanity that made him concentrate on the camera ... A photographer couldn’t miss with Ali. He made your job a success just by showing up.” Dick Schaap, one of the most famous sports editors in the U.S. at the time, recalls that Clay granted more interviews “than anyone else in the history of the earth. I can’t imagine a politician or show business figure who talked to as many people so many times for as long as he did.”
Mike Katz, a well-known sports journalist who regularly worked for The New York Times, did not believe “that there’s been an athlete in history who gave as much of himself to the media as Ali. He liked attention: he thrived on it.” Katz even added that if there were no people around, Ali would probably do everything he could to attract the attention of a cat. “But he also worked cooperatively with the media and understood it as well as anyone I’ve ever known.” He made time for even the smallest media and news outlets. “Ali would spend as much time talking to a tenth-grader from the local high school newspaper as he would to the boxing writer for The New York Times,” says Katz.
And in the words of Ed Schuyler from one of America’s leading news agencies, Associated Press, there had never been an elite athlete “who was more accessible to the media than Ali. His training camp was always open. You could cover him twenty-four hours a day ... Once he saw a microphone or if two or three of us were taking notes, it was like someone threw a switch and a light went on.”
Even in the earliest stages of his professional career, Clay began wearing white T-shirts with his name printed on them in red. Other boxers always wore their names on the back of their robes, and that was only on fight nights. “It may have been the first time an American athlete devised his own name-brand apparel for daily wear. Already, he was emerging as one of the most adept self-promoters in all of sport.”
Clay was always coming up with new publicity stunts. Long before his first title fight, he mocked up a newspaper in a shopping mall in New York’s Times Square with a headline he dreamed up himself: “Cassius signs for Patterson fight.” “Back home,” Clay explained, “they’ll believe it’s real.” He was known for his boasting (“I am the Greatest”) and self-aggrandizement, and once he appeared for a weigh-in with a strip of masking tape covering his mouth – a gag that made even his opponent smile.
Before his first world championship title fight against Sonny Liston, Clay rode around in a red and white bus emblazoned with big signs reading “THE GREATEST,” “WORLD’S MOST COLORFUL FIGHTER,” and “SONNY LISTON WILL GO IN EIGHT.” One night, Clay phoned a few newspapers and radio stations, urging them to get over to Sonny Liston’s house if they wanted a good story. At one o’clock in the morning, Clay took his bus to Liston's house, rolled up at the curb and taunted the heavyweight champion, announcing, “I’m going to whup you right now!”
One of Clay’s most famous PR stunts was predicting the exact round in which his opponents would fall to the canvas. No boxer before him had ever done this and it created great suspense for journalists and audiences alike. Early in his career, Clay also began to compose short verses, which would later become his trademark. For instance, he told a reporter:
»This guy must be done,
I'll stop him in one.«
In another of his early fights, Clay predicted that his opponent would fall in the sixth round. Critics were offended by the fact that Clay would sometimes coast for a full round just to fulfill his prediction.
Clay, however, “liked his new gimmick, liked the extra attention that came with his increasingly bold behavior, and he was convinced that publicity would help him get a quicker shot at the championship.” He became even more of a showman and turned predicting when his opponents would crash to the canvas into his USP: “I’m not the greatest. I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ‘em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skillfullest fighter in the ring today. I’m the only fighter who goes from corner to corner and club to club debating with fans. I’ve received more publicity than any fighter in history. I talk to reporters till their fingers are sore.”
On the one hand, Clay came across as aggressive and extremely boastful; on the other his pronouncements were typically accompanied by a cheeky glint in his eye and a hefty dose of humor. That made him popular. Before his fight with Liston, for instance, he said: “I don’t just want to be champion of the world, I’m gonna be champion of the whole universe. After I whup Sonny Liston, I’m gonna whup those little green men from Jupiter and Mars. And looking at them won’t scare me none because they can’t be no uglier than Sonny Liston.”
When it came to the pre-fight weigh-in with Liston – championship bout weigh-ins had always been pretty boring and routine affairs – Clay went totally crazy, ranting, raving and hammering around on the floor with an African walking stick. It took six strong men to forcibly restrain him, or so it seemed, so he wouldn’t go after Liston during the weigh-in. Most observers thought Clay had lost control of himself, was emotionally unbalanced, and would crack up completely before he even entered the ring for the showdown with Liston. However, one reporter who was observing the events more closely noticed that this too was nothing more than a carefully staged show and that most of what was happening seemed to have been planned in advance.
Just as Arnold Schwarzenegger would succeed in popularizing bodybuilding in the 1980s – first in the United States and then worldwide – Clay attracted global attention to the world of boxing in the 1960s. Yet he did not see himself primarily as an athlete, but even more so as a star in the entertainment business. Even early in his career, this was something he was well aware of. “I don’t feel like I’m boxing anymore. It’s showbusiness.” According to his biographer Jonathan Eig, Clay was “the greatest self-promoter the pugilistic world had ever seen.”
In 1963, Ali did something else no fighter before him had ever done: he released an album of monologues and poems devoted largely to his own greatness. “I am so great, I impress even myself. … It’s hard to be modest when you’re as great as I am. … They all must lose in the round I choose. … I’m a perfect role model for children: I’m good-looking, clean-living, cultured and modest.”
Many of the prominent personalities described in this book were perceived by the people who really knew them as pronounced narcissists who had never really reached emotional maturity. This is also true of Clay. Jerry Izenberg, one of the most famous sports reporters in the United States at the time, observed: “He loves people in groups, and they might hold his interest individually for a short period of time. But most of his interaction with people is centered on himself – not in an ugly way, but in a childlike way.”
Among Ali’s most distinctive trademarks – from the beginning to the end of his career – were the short poems and verses that he initially wrote himself. They belonged to him just as the verses and sayings of Albert Einstein or Karl Lagerfeld became integral to their brand image. In 1963, Bundini Brown joined Clay’s entourage. Bundini saw himself as a writer and demonstrated a great talent for composing witty poems for Clay. It was Bundini who coined what would become Clay’s most famous slogan, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” With these words, Bundini encapsulated Clay’s style so aptly that the phrase was soon being quoted everywhere. During his career, Clay probably repeated these very same words thousands of times. Although it seemed that Clay came up with his slogans and verses on the spot, this was very rarely the case. As the essayist Wilfried Sheed recalled, “I’d hoped he made up his funny lines as he went along, when in fact I discovered he had a formidable memory bank of them.”
Clay was a quick learner and picked up ideas from other sports stars. He once appeared on a radio show with Gorgeous George, the most famous professional wrestler of his day. His sport had made him very rich, but he invested much more time and energy in self-marketing than he did in competing in the ring. After the joint radio interview, Clay watched Gorgeous George wrestle in a sold-out arena. “I saw fifteen thousand people coming to see this man get beat,” he said. “And his talking did it. I said, ‘This is a gooood idea!’”
Clay was deliberately provocative with his pronouncements and loud bragging, fully convinced that many spectators only attended his fights to see this cocky young black man “get his pretty face disfigured.” Later in his career, Clay became an outspoken political activist, a vocal advocate of civil rights and a leading opponent of the Vietnam War. But in the early years of his boxing career, none of these issues mattered to him. The leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States were disappointed that Clay seemed to exhibit so little interest in their cause. They were even angry at his habit of using racist stereotypes in his disparaging remarks about other black boxers. At this time, Clay seldom expressed any of his personal opinions on issues of politics or race.
Nevertheless, he increasingly embraced the Nation of Islam, an association which – unlike the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. – strictly rejected integration and opposed white racism with black racism. Today, Clay is regarded as a champion of African-American equality and integration, but this is not true. In fact, he held segregationist views of his own: “In the jungle, lions are with lions, and tigers with tigers, and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds.” Clay believed that integration was a mistake, and that black and white people should live separately. He also believed that a worldwide alliance of nonwhites would ultimately lead to victory over the Caucasian minority.
The champion of African-American equality, Martin Luther King Jr., also criticized Clay: “When he joined the Black Muslims and started calling himself Cassius X he became a champion of segregation and that is what we are fighting against.” Clay even left Americans scratching their heads when he praised the segregationist views of the right-wing fringe politician George Wallace.
Clay, who became a member of the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali in March 1964, had lots of opponents – both white and black. “Ali may have been the most widely disliked man in America in 1965,” writes his biographer Jonathan Eig.
Ali was famous for refusing to be drafted to the military and for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. His reasons for taking such a defiant step changed with time, a fact that did not increase Ali’s credibility. On one occasion he explained that the United States is a Christian country and that his religion forbade him from fighting in a war on behalf of “nonbelievers”: “We are not, according to the Holy Qur’an, to even as much as aid in passing a cup of water to the wounded. I mean, this is the Holy Qur’an.”
Ali’s most famous statement in declaring himself a conscientious objector was “I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” This sentence was quoted and printed on T-shirts all over America – it became one of the most frequently cited statements Ali ever made. With these words, Ali aligned himself with the generation of anti-Vietnam War protesters around the world in the 1960s. For some he became a hero, but many Americans turned their backs on him, offended by his unpatriotic attitude. Arthur Daley from The New York Times called on a boycott of Ali and said that people should refuse to watch his fights in person or on TV. “Clay could have been the most popular of all champions. But he attached himself to a hate organization, and antagonized everyone with his boasting and his disdain for the decency of even low-grade patriotism.”
In 1965, the World Boxing Association and the New York State Athletic Commission suspended Ali’s boxing license. Other boxing commissions followed suit and Ali was stripped of his world championship title. In June 1967, he was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in the United States military, a sentence he never actually had to serve as it was revoked three years later.
Ali’s conflict with the state was compounded by a dispute with the Nation of Islam, who were incensed when Ali declared that he wanted to return to boxing in order to earn some money. It was not entirely logical that the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, should take offence at Ali’s decision, however, because he had not only accepted Ali’s sporting activities in the past, but his son also earned splendidly from them. Ali continued to profess his belief in the Nation of Islam, but Elijah Muhammad eventually suspended his membership. In a statement issued on April 4, 1969, Elijah Muhammad put his signature to the following words: “Mr. Muhammad Ali shall not be recognized with us under the holy name Muhammad Ali. We will call him Cassius Clay. We take away the name of Allah from him until he proves himself worthy of that name.” Despite this pronouncement, Clay continued to call himself Muhammad Ali and also affirmed his loyalty to the Nation of Islam and his faith. If anything, the enforced three-year interruption of his boxing career (1967 to 1970) after he was stripped of his belt and boxing license actually proved to be positive for him, as historian Jim Jacobs stated, “In some ways, the exile from boxing was the best thing that could have happened to Ali.” Before his enforced break from boxing, a substantial portion of the American public had turned on Ali, “And worse, they were getting tired of hearing what he was about.” Ali’s exile created the space for him to reconnect with the people. Ali even became a symbol to those who had never shown any interest in boxing before.
Ali continued his public relations campaign even during his forced exile from the ring, but with a different approach. He traveled around the country giving speeches at a large number of events. “In a way,” said Jacobs, “It was like a presidential candidate sowing the seeds for future caucuses and primaries.”
When Ali returned to the ring after a break of more than three years, the mood had swung in his favor. Despite his long exile from boxing, he received much higher fees and became the highest paid athlete in the world. For his fight against the world champion Joe Frazier, dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” Ali received a guaranteed payment of $2.5 million, by far the highest payday a boxer had ever received and equivalent to more than $15 million dollars today.
Before his legendary fight with Frazier, Ali resumed his old habit of predicting the outcome of the fight, but this time with a twist. As a new PR gag, he had come up with the following stunt: Ali announced that, five minutes before the bout and on live TV, he would remove a sheet of paper from a sealed envelope. The piece of paper would contain his prediction of the round in which he would knock Frazier out.
In the run-up to their fight, Ali painted Frazier, who was also black, as the white man’s hope. “He isolated Joe from the black community. He constantly equated Joe with the white power structure, and said things like, ‘Any black person who’s for Joe Frazier is a traitor.’” On a television talk show, Ali went as far as to say, “The only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.”
For the rest of his life, Joe Frazier was bitter about Ali’s unfair propaganda. “Calling me an Uncle Tom; calling me the white man’s champion. All that was phoniness to turn people against me. He was helping himself, not black people.” It was a tactic Ali employed not only in his fight against Frazier, but whenever he competed against black boxers.
On 30 October 1974, Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire – a fight that was to go down in the annals of boxing history as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Before the fight, Ali went on a PR tour of Zaire to win over the country’s inhabitants. On the flight to Zaire, Ali’s advisers explained that some of his attacks on Foreman might not go down as well in Africa as they would in the United States. The majority of the population of Zaire was Christian and very few among them would understand the term Uncle Tom, which Ali otherwise used to disparagingly refer to his black opponents. Ali thought for a moment and then asked who the people of Zaire hated. After it was explained to him that the people in the former Belgian colony would hate Belgians above all else, Ali knew what he had to do. On his arrival in Zaire he roared, “I am the Greatest,” followed quickly by “George Foreman is a Belgian.” Ali had already painted Foreman, a fellow black boxer, as the white man’s hope. Now, within minutes of touching down in Zaire, he had branded Foreman a colonialist oppressor of the Congolese. At one point, he went even further and branded Foreman “the oppressor of all black nations.” Just as Steve Jobs styled the competition between Apple and IBM as a fight between good and evil, Ali turned a fight between two black boxers into a fight against the alleged oppressor of all black nations. “If he wins, we’re slaves for three hundred more years,” claimed Ali in a pre-bout TV interview. “If I win, we’re free.”
On some occasions, Ali totally misjudged the impact of his exaggerated statements. In particular, one of the remarks he made in the run-up to the Foreman fight got him in trouble: “All you boys who don’t take me seriously, who think George Foreman is gonna whup me; when you get to Africa, Mobutu’s people are gonna put you in a pot, cook you, and eat you.” The country’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had put up a lot of money to bring the fight to Zaire, was understandably angry because he wanted to use the global spectacle to spread his name and that of his country. Two days after Clay’s statement, Mobutu’s foreign minister called Ali’s managers to reprimand them and Ali. “Well, please tell Mr. Ali that we are not cannibals; we don’t eat people. We’re doing the fight to create trade and help our country, and Mr. Ali’s remarks are damaging our image.” Ali won by a knockout in the eighth round and, in reclaiming the world championship, disproved the supposedly cast-iron rule that ‘champions never come back’ – before him only Floyd Patterson had managed to do so.
Over the next few years, Ali increasingly toned down his political statements. Only rarely did he refer to whites – as he had previously done – as devils. And although he remained loyal to the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, he did not talk about his devotion quite as often as before.
He no longer visited college campuses to speak out against the Vietnam War and stopped making politically inflammatory statements. “He gave the impression of a man who, above all else, was glad to be a boxer again.” As the legendary football player Jim Brown once observed, “When Ali came back from exile, he became the darling of America, which was good for America because it brought black and white together. But the Ali that America ended up loving was not the Ali I loved most. I didn’t feel the same way about him anymore, because the warrior I loved was gone. In a way, he became part of the establishment.”
Ali even went as far as to publicly retract his earlier statement about having no quarrel with the Viet Cong. Now, he declared that he stood by his decision to oppose the draft, but, “I wouldn’t have said that thing about the Viet Cong. I would have handled the draft different. There wasn’t any reason to make so many people mad.” He went on to repeat his expression of regret several times. He also qualified his earlier stance as a conscientious objector by declaring that he would fight if America was ever attacked.
Ali, a hero to the left-wing students of the 1960s, now irked many of his former supporters with his public shows of support for the Republican presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan, who was an established hate figure among left-wingers. Ali’s reconciliation with America was confirmed when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, from Republican President George W. Bush in 2005.
Clearly it was not just Ali that had changed. The United States of America had changed too – Ali and the American zeitgeist had re-converged. Ali owed much of his sustained popularity to the fact that he not only rebelled against the mainstream, he also became part of the new mainstream. In the 1960s, Ali was a leading figure in the protest movement, a vocal advocate of civil rights and a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War. As a fighter for the cause of African Americans and against the Vietnam War, he was despised and admired in equal measure. But once these battles were fought and a new America emerged in the 70s and 80s, Ali found it easier to adapt to the zeitgeist and to reconcile with his country. And his country with him. “My fight in the boxing ring was only to make me popular,” Ali admitted. “I never enjoyed boxing. I never enjoyed hurting people, knocking people down. But this world only recognizes power, wealth, and fame – according to their procedures.”
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