One of my heroes is Muhammed Ali and he has held a place in my heart, even though it’s been nearly 40 years since his last fight, and some time has now passed since his death in 2016.

For me, 5 things stand out about the man, which I believe are relevant for us all today.

1. The Power of Belief

“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.” Muhammed Ali

I love the story told by Ali’s brother, Rahman, of how they sat on the step as kids in Kentucky, and Ali told him how one day he’d be heavyweight champion of the world. This belief sustained him throughout his career.

Time and again it drove him to beat the odds, notably in his world title winning fights against Sonny Liston and George Foreman.  And it gave him the focus to dig himself out of some deep holes in his epic fighting trilogies against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.

But what’s really impressive about Ali, is that his beliefs defined him in a larger arena than the sport in which he excelled. His belief in the invalidity of his country’s involvement in the Vietnam War led to his criminal conviction, personal vilification, and professional banishment. His stand meant he was absent from the prime years of his professional life in his late twenties, and yet by the time he returned to the ring, public opinion had come round to his way of thinking.

It took him seven years to regain the world title, and it was his belief in his own greatness that sustained him. By the time he finished, the rest of the world had caught up, and truly believed he was the heavyweight champion of the world. In my mind, he always will be!

2. The Importance of Identity

“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Muhammed Ali

Ali changed the game. Not simply the sport of boxing, but also what it means to be an elite athlete, and even the business of sport.


Most obviously he changed his name, and in doing so changed his religion to Islam. As a coloured man in Civil Rights era America this was a profound statement of self determination, and he faced down the opprobrium of a number of his opponents, as well as much of society in embracing and articulating the reasons for this change.

And in doing so he changed the script about how champions behave.

With “The Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Gardens in 1971, he changed the economics of top level sport. Early satellite relays enabled the gross take to reach $18 million, and professional sports entered a new era. To put that number into perspective, the gross turnover of Manchester United at that time was a shade over £500,000 per year. Today, that figure is £500 million.

3. The Nature of Inspiration

“When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again. The fans with the cigars and the hats turned down’ll be there, but no more housewives and little men in the street and foreign presidents. It’s goin’ to be back to the fighter who comes to town, smells a flower, visits a hospital, blows a horn and says he’s in shape. Old hat. I was the only boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.” Muhammed Ali

How do we inspire others through what we do? Not only did Ali do this, but as this quote shows, at the age of 25, he understood why.

For what he spoke of was his ability to connect with people. Love him or loathe him, wish him well or I’ll, he connected with people, many of whom had no interest in boxing.

And that’s our challenge too. Whether it’s leading a team, or building a business, living our passion and helping others connect to what matters to them are the nature of inspiration.

4. The Sustainability of Loyalty

“Back in those days they were probably pinching themselves, but the two of us are just friends, and that’s all there is to it” Paddy Monaghan

I spent my youth in Abingdon, Oxfordshire in the 1970’s and believe it or not, Muhammed Ali was a regular visitor to his great friend, an Irish guy called Paddy Monaghan, who lived in a council house in Saxton Road in the town.


Because when Ali was serving his ban from boxing in 1967, Paddy started a petition to get him reinstated. And Ali was grateful, and he never forgot. Whenever he travelled to the UK, he visited his friend, signed autographs for the kids in the street, and had his photo taken.

They maintained their friendship for over 40 years. By repaying Paddy’s kindness, Ali generated goodwill many times greater,and demonstrated that the power of his friendship was even greater than the power of his punches.

5. The Value of Resilience

“What I suffered physically was worth what I’ve accomplished in life. A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life.” Muhammed Ali

We’ve all seen the clips of the rope – a – dope tactic Ali used to bamboozle George Foreman, and if you’ve never seen the third fight against Joe Frazier, the “Thrilla in Manilla” please don’t – I’ve never seen two men in a sporting arena bring each other closer to death than they did that night.

And yet it’s clear to me that Ali’s true resilience was even more evident in the second half of his life, in the time when he was no longer a boxer.

Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 42. Someone wrote that it robbed him of his middle age, and he became an old man overnight. And yet everybody who knew him or met him, speaks of the dignity and grace with which he led his life. Amongst other things in the time since he died, I’ve seen TV pictures of him talking a suicidal man down from a window ledge, and have read of his peace mission to Baghdad to secure the release of 14 American hostages in Gulf War 1.

Living with Parkinson’s was his longest fight, and I feel as inspired by his determination in living his life to the full in spite of his illness, as I do by any of his battles in the ring or in the courts.