As a teenager living in northwest Detroit in the early ’70s, I would sit by the radio and listen to round-by-round updates of another fight. Not just another fight, but a Muhammad Ali fight. Whether it was against George Foreman, Joe Frazier or whomever, when Ali fought, people would listen to the radio for updates.
There was no cable back then and very few talking heads, only the Disc Jockey (DJ) from the local radio station provided updates between rounds.
And when Ali was fighting, it was must-hear radio.
I wasn’t alone. People would call each other after each fight to share the news of another Ali victory. And then, it was broadcast days later on “Wide World of Sports” with the late, legendary broadcaster, Howard Cosell, calling the action. Even though you knew the result, you watched anyway because boxing fans had to see it for themselves.
Here was this young, African American, exquisite, powerful boxer with brash and bravado and the ability to back it up. Ali was born as Cassius Clay and changed his name to Muhammad Ali in the 60s because of his personal and religious beliefs.
He was also the master marketer. Think about it. Whether you loved or loathed him, as many did both in those days, he made you watch and listen. You watched because no matter which side of the fence you sat on, there was always the curiosity factor–did he win or lose?
And in his brilliant boxing career, he won 56 times and even more in life.
While being stripped of his heavyweight championship for three plus years and convicted for draft evasion, Ali did so based on on his principles and beliefs But yet, due to a technicality, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor which allowed him to fight in many of the greatest boxing matches in the sport’s history during the 70s.
This past Friday night, I was catching up on the day’s news online and noticed an article regarding Ali’s health. I shared it via social media with a simple message, “Prayers for the Greatest”. Saturday morning, I heard about his passing and thought it couldn’t be true.
Of course, it was.
And then after my workout, I overheard a startling comment, “…Muhammad Ali was not more famous than Prince…” No disrespect to the musical genius Prince at all, but Ali was and still is, a legend, historical figure, trailblazer, humanitarian and an international, iconic figure.
Can you imagine his breadth and impact in today’s digital age?
And at this point, it struck me how the marketer brilliantly re-branded himself, whether consciously or not.
In his hey day, Ali didn’t find a microphone he didn’t like, but after he retired and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease 30 years ago, he started to shun the spotlight–with his final public appearance on April 9th–and yet, as he slipped out of the attention-getting headlines, his aura and impact continued to grow.
Throughout his career and in later years, many believed he became more of a beloved figure because he focused on helping people and sharing his message of peace, inclusion and young people.
And with Parkinson’s on full display, who can forget, during the 1996 opening ceremony, Ali lighting the Olympic torch with his hands trembling but standing strong? The stadium crowd erupted and a reportedly estimated 3 billion across the globe watched in awe. That singular event truly was one of those “…I remember when…” moments.
With all of the tributes and adulation pouring in the past few days, it’s amazing to see how he’s been embraced today as a person of peace, inclusion and inspiration which stands in stark contrast to the when Ali was deemed as divisive and defiant during the 60s. In its own way, all of these roads have now intersected to create a person who, in his death, will continue to inspire and lead others.
In his later years, a man who once thrived in the spotlight asked a simple question:
“Will they remember me?”
The answer is yes. Absolutely, yes!
Simply, The Greatest! RIP