Often seemingly small, insignificant actions can have major impact – sometimes they can even affect the entire world. One such instance occurred in Louisville, Kentucky in 1954. Someone stole a twelve-year-old boy’s bicycle. No one knows who it was – no one ever will. That bike was the boy’s prized possession, likely the only thing of real worth that he owned. Infuriated, the boy – Cassius – reported the theft to a policeman stating that if he found the culprit he was going to ‘whoop’ him. The officer, Joe Martin, smiled as he told the boy “well, you’d better learn how to fight before then.”
Joe, who also worked with young boxers at a local gym, began training Cassius as well. That same year Cassius had his first amateur bout – winning by split decision. He never found the thief – or his bike – but he did discover a love for boxing. Two years later, he won the Golden Gloves light heavyweight title in their novice tournament. In another three years, at the age of 17, Cassius won both the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions and the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title.
The 1960 Olympics were to be held in Rome, Italy. Cassius had earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team. Once there he would win a Gold Medal by defeating a Polish fighter, Zbigniew Pietrzkowski. That historic trip almost didn’t occur, however, as Cassius had an intense fear of flying. Only when he was allowed to carry a parachute on the plane with him, did he agree to take the flight.
Flying may have been his only fear. He was highly skilled in boxing, possessing speed and moves rarely – if ever – seen. As his skills developed, so did his confidence, which many people saw as cockiness. Who was this brash, young, black man? He answered that question by defeating every opponent in overwhelming fashion, culminating with a 1963 victory over Henry Cooper, the British heavyweight champion.
Cassius had earned the right to fight the heavyweight champion of the world – Sonny Liston. Liston was regarded as one of the toughest, meanest fighters in the history of boxing. Liston had learned to box in the Missouri State Penitentiary and was known as the Big Bear. The contender began taunting the champ as soon as the contract was signed. He wrote a poem about the fight, declared himself the champ at the official weigh-in and claimed that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” on his way to a knockout.
When Liston didn’t answer the bell to begin the 7th round, Cassius became the heavyweight champion of the world. The very next day he called a press conference to confirm that he had converted to Islam and would be taking a Muslim name. He would go on to be the first person in history to win the heavyweight title on three different occasions, amass a record of 57 wins (36 by knockout) vs only 5 losses. He was named the athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the BBC and many others. In boxing circles, he is known as the GOAT – Greatest of All Time.
Those accomplishments were possible only because Muhammad Ali was a fearless brand. Yet Ali was so much more than a boxer. Boxing speaks more to his profession, which is merely a reflection of the man that he was.
Fearless Brands are much more than just their profession
Muhammad Ali first became the heavyweight champion of the world in 1964. A successful future seemed guaranteed. Holding the heavyweight title in those days garnered worldwide prestige and fame. Here was Muhammad Ali, a black man, a Muslim, an American on the center of the world stage. Outwardly he was brash, cocky, proud and fearless.
Ali’s essence went much deeper than that, however. He converted to Islam because those beliefs best matched his true self – his soul. He was a man who believed in peace, living a life of respect and that the more we help others, the more we help ourselves. Ali was given a true test of faith when, in 1967, he was called to military service via the draft. Ali refused to enlist, becoming a conscientious objector based on his principles and his faith.
He was stripped of his title, lost his boxing licenses, was charged with a felony and sentenced to five years in jail. He fought that ruling with the same guile and determination that he brought to the ring. After three years, he regained his right to fight and two years after that his conviction was overturned by a unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ali the boxer – and his fights – are legendary, it’s easy to research the details. What is more important is how Ali the man led his life and influenced the world. Nelson Mandela said that Ali was a symbol of hope for him during his imprisonment. When Dr. Martin Luther King went public about his opposition to the Vietnam war, he quoted Ali. A man who held one of the most highly regarded titles in the world was seen to sacrifice his career for his commitment to peace throughout the world.
Ali was a voice for those without one – fearless in his stance on civil rights, fighting for people suffering injustices in the United States and the rest of the world. He renounced violence – seeking peace instead. He became a statesman, a symbol for justice and an inspiration to millions around the globe.
Muhammad Ali was a man with great strength of character and an unshakable commitment to his principles. It was Ali the man who exemplifies a fearless brand. Ali the boxer is merely a reflection of that. Here are some key lessons from Ali the fearless brand.
Believe in yourself – Muhammad Ali put it this way “I am the greatest – I said that even before I was!” Fearless brands achieve a level of conviction which allows them to achieve their goals and fulfill their dreams. Know your talent, embrace your passion, believe in yourself.
Do the work! – More from Ali “I hated every minute of training, but I said, don’t quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” Your brand is ever changing and evolving. It takes work to adapt, adjust, improve and increase your value.
Dig deep to find the desire – “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.” You have to want the results one will achieve as a fearless brand. At times, you need to trudge – other times you need to smash through walls. Find your will.
Be patient, finding your purpose takes time – Finding our purpose isn’t at all like selecting from a menu or following an urge. It takes time for our true purpose to develop, to nurture and to be recognized. Ali thought his purpose was to become the greatest boxer in history – and he did. It wasn’t until later that he realized his purpose was to be a voice for peace, fairness and equality. If you’re not certain of your purpose, be patient but remain diligent. Until you know your purpose, merely do the next thing to the best of your ability.
Little did that bike thief in 1954 know that his selfish act would have such an impact on the world. That act set young Cassius Clay on a journey like none other. He honed his talents – physical, mental and spiritual. When his purpose became clear, he unleashed his passion. I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone steal a bicycle – but I am suggesting that becoming a fighter for what you believe and being committed to improving your part of the world will yield benefits you can’t yet foresee.