Muhammad Ali was more than a record-setting boxing icon, an activist, an Olympian and a philanthropist.
He was one of the greatest publicity machines known to man.
Ask us why.
Well, for one, no one else claimed the title: The Greatest as much as he did.
In his words,
“I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
The expression, “Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee”, was one of many that turned him into a global superstar; as he combined his braggadocio with bold and brave wins. The popular quote “everything you do or say is PR” resonated in Ali’s actions as his use of poetry in and out of the ring scared the hell out of his opponents and wooed fans.
BHM founder Ayeni Adekunle is an advocate of great storytelling, constantly advising PR pros to use our own medicine. Steve Clayton, chief storyteller at Microsoft, puts it well: “It sounds obvious, but the real secret [to PR] is this: Start with a great story.”
And Muhammad Ali fed us with the greatest of them all.
“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
Ali wasn’t all words and no action as he displayed talent all through his career. His outlandish and confident statements were just a proof of what he really could do in the ring. He was an Olympian and three-time lineal world heavyweight champion: in 1964, 1974, and 1978. That is why everyone from Barrack Obama to David Cameron, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and John Legend agree he is the G.O.A.T. – Greatest Of All Time.
His braggadocio and oratory not only won him matches before they began, they also won him the hearts of all who watched him speak and fight.
“Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right – when he knocks you down, you’ll sleep for the night; and when you lie on the floor and the ref counts to ten, hope and pray that you never meet me again. “
His mastery of words, you can say, contributed to his role as an activist and controversial public figure. He always had the right and, most times, shocking things to say.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
From speaking up and fighting for what he believed in to preventing a man’s intended suicide in 1981, Ali never missed a good PR opportunity.
His lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, while visibly suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was seen by many to be inspirational.
In a 1989 interview, he said he believed his illness was a message from God:
“I know why this has happened … God is showing me, and showing you … that I’m just a man, just like everybody else.”
Even while suffering from the disease, his narrative didn’t change.
He taught us a valuable PR lesson that If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will – and you may not like the outcome.