After winning his first 19 fights, including 15 knockouts, Clay received his first title shot on February 25, 1964, against reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston (1932-1970). Although he arrived in Miami Beach, Florida, a 7-1 underdog, the 22-year-old Clay relentlessly taunted Liston before the fight, promising to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and predicting a knockout. When Liston failed to answer the bell at the start of the seventh round, Clay was indeed crowned heavyweight champion of the world. In the ring after the fight, the new champ roared, “I am the greatest!”
At a press conference the next morning, Clay, who had been seen around Miami with controversial Nation of Islam member Malcolm X (1925-1965), confirmed the rumors of his conversion to Islam. On March 6, 1964, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) bestowed on Clay the name of Muhammad Ali.
Ali solidified his hold on the heavyweight championship by knocking out Liston in the first round of their rematch on May 25, 1965, and he defended his title eight more times. Then, with the Vietnam War raging, Ali showed up for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces on April 28, 1967. Citing his religious beliefs, he refused to serve. Ali was arrested, and the New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his boxing license and revoked his heavyweight belt.
Convicted of draft evasion, Ali was sentenced to the maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, but he remained free while the conviction was appealed. Many saw Ali as a draft dodger, and his popularity plummeted. Banned from boxing for three years, Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War on college campuses. As public attitudes turned against the war, support for Ali grew. In 1970 the New York State Supreme Court ordered his boxing license reinstated, and the following year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous decision.
About few people in few fields can we say there is a before and after.
Muhammad Ali is one of them--beyond "just" boxing, but to sport in general, and free and open expression. Every athlete today lives in his shadow. Every leader. Every war resister. Every public speaker. Every person who works for fairness.
Nobody before him did anything like what he did.
Compare athletes of today. Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan dominated their sports, but what social change did they create outside it? Who speaks with his honesty?
Compare public speakers today. What public figure speaks with such openness? Who makes such sacrifices for their beliefs?
Who inspires so many? What poet or songwriter put so many phrases with so much meaning into the public dialog to endure so much?
Muhammad Ali: Leader
In business we strive to influence and lead others. We want to learn from successful leaders. If you don't think of Ali as a great leader from whom you can learn, I think you should.
In my leadership course, I teach students to speak authentically and use Muhammad Ali as an example--maybe the greatest example of someone who speaks authentically.
For a man who claimed never to have read a book, his authenticity projected his voice beyond what more status, money, or facts could have. Nothing holds any of us back from speaking with his authenticity, conviction, and openness. We should.
Ask most Americans to name great leaders and nearly all will name Martin Luther King. I think it's fair to say that anyone who led King was a great leader. Muhammad Ali did.
How Ali Led King
Few prominent Americans spoke as authentically as Martin Luther King. Still, even after winning a Nobel Peace Prize, he struggled to speak out publicly against the Vietnam War after he privately came to oppose it.
Muhammad Ali led Martin Luther King, despite not being a statesman or politician. On the contrary, he simply spoke authentically--that is, without the filter many people use to keep from saying things they might regret.
Ali had no relevant credentials. He only spoke with conviction. Even then he spoke simply, with less depth or breadth than King later did. Anyone can speak so bluntly if they have the experience speaking authentically.
We may today forget the risks a public figure took then to publicly oppose the United States government in wartime. At the time much of the nation intensely opposed their statements.
Martin Luther King's speech was eloquent, well-reasoned, and rousing, though sharing the ambivalence he had to navigate to speak out.
King recognized Muhammad Ali's leadership, even as he felt compelled to distance himself from him religiously and politically. Agree or disagree on either of their stances, you can't ignore the effectiveness and simplicity of Ali's speech, which we can learn from.