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How Muhammad Ali’s Quotes Relate In Sports Media

On Friday night at 11:10pm, the world lost an icon. The greatest boxer to grace the squared circle, Muhammad Ali, was called home. His ascension to heaven has left many across the nation sad, but his departure from earth now gives the man upstairs access to the greatest fighter of all-time. I’m sure negotiations for a fourth fight with “Smokin” Joe Frazier will start soon.

Ali’s accomplishments in the ring spoke for themselves. To many, he was more than a champion and colorful personality. He was an influencer, an activist, a husband, a father, a man of faith, and someone who was charitable, kind, cocky, and humble. He lived the better part of the past three decades with Parkinson’s disease, but refused the world’s pity. Others might have asked “why me”, but not Ali. He lived life without regret, and was at peace.

I was fortunate to grow up with a father who loved boxing. I was introduced to the greatness of Muhammad Ali early on, and over the years I’ve watched many of his fights and listened to countless interviews to get a deeper understanding of why he was unique and one of the most important personalities in the history of sports. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but was impressed with what he stood for inside and outside of the ring just like many others.

Today, the media business uses hype to sell events and content. There’s a steady diet of coverage given to athletes who produce a great soundbite. Games that involve compelling storylines and drama, get pushed into prime time and air on the biggest days of the sports calendar. On and off the field actions that draw a reaction become front page headlines. If an athlete discusses subjects that are viewed as controversial or outside the sports realm, it quickly becomes national news. It’s the type of material that networks salivate over.

We crave personalities on camera and in front of microphones who speak more like Charles Barkley, and less like Derek Jeter or Steph Curry. We all appreciate greatness but when personality is added to the mix, it’s an unbeatable combination. A big reason why athletes have been given a forum to showcase their personalities, and speak their minds, is because Ali paved the way.

When Ali ruled the world, he made sure everyone knew it. He had a flair for the dramatic, and a style that demanded your attention. He was funny, articulate, unfiltered, charming, witty, brash, creative, and sometimes, arrogant. Those attributes made his interviews and fights must-see events. He understood the power of the media, how to use it to his advantage, and how it could help him professionally, and personally. Without Ali, Charles Barkley, T.O., Reggie Jackson, Allen Iverson, and countless other athletes might never have become as popular as they did. They may also not have had an opportunity to address social issues or use their celebrity to make a difference.

Consider this, when Ali fought, there was no pay per view business. Today, many companies (WWE, UFC, Boxing) rely heavily on income generated from direct to consumer purchases to sustain their operations. But even without pay per view, Ali had the entire world’s interest. His predictions made headlines in every newspaper. His personality was a magnet for television. He combined his verbal skills and in-ring style and execution, and became the baddest man on the planet. He was a fighting champion who took on the best the boxing world had to offer. In doing so, he’d slug it out with everyone, even to his own physical detriment. When his career ended, few questioned his place as the greatest to wear a pair of boxing gloves.

During the past weekend, you’ve probably read an article or two on Ali, or watched some of the coverage about him on television. If not, maybe you listened to radio hosts discuss his impact, or dug into the archives on YouTube to be reminded of his brilliance.

One thing which Ali was masterful of was the quote. When he said something, it stuck. His words often wound up on living room walls or hanging inside of corporate offices. Although most of his commentaries were directed towards his profession, they were transferrable to every other form of business.

I started thinking about the quotes he offered and the way they relate today in the sports media industry. I selected thirteen of my favorite’s and added a few thoughts to describe how they translate to what we do. He may not have meant to influence the sports media business with the words he uttered, but this is just another example of the greatness of Muhammad Ali. Thank you for the memories champ! You truly were one of a kind.

ali101. “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

*** When the lights go on, it’s showtime….but the product you present won’t be great if you haven’t put in the preparation time necessary to stand out. From collaborating with your teammates, to engaging your audience, analyzing the data to understand how you can better help your show be successful, everything done before and after the show is just as important as what you do during it. Allen Iverson may not have been a fan of practice, but great practice habits lead to great execution when it counts most….that’s why Ali was a champion and Iverson never was.

ali52. “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

*** From the people you hire, to the content you create, to the way you interact with the audience or each other, being willing to adapt and try new things will not only keep you mentally engaged and excited, but it will keep your audience feeling that way too. Nobody remembers people who operate comfortably and refuse to risk their position to do something great. It’s those who take chances and have passion, vision, and the confidence necessary to make them work that connect in the biggest way.

ali93. “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

*** Life changes quickly. The way we broadcast now is different than 10-20 years ago. People now text more than call. They use social media instead of newspapers. Audiences watch or listen to content on-demand not always live as it happens. Music is bought through apps less than in stores. There are many great skills we’ve learned in our careers and many of them are transferrable, but changing with the times, and opening our minds to the future, is important to succeeding. Embrace the unknown, rather than running from it.

ali4. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

*** In broadcasting, the goal is to take the audience on an emotional journey. They need to feel your enthusiasm. Cheer you on or wish to choke you when you deliver scorching opinions that demand their attention. Sob with you when your sadness can’t be hidden. Laugh with you and at you, when you display your vulnerabilities. There are multiple layers to your personality, and that’s the one thing that sets you apart from everyone else. Let them in, and they’ll learn to appreciate every part of what makes you who you are.

ali85. “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.”

*** If you don’t have confidence in yourself, who will? Sometimes you have to build your own ego before others can do it for you. If you want others to recognize what you bring to the table, you have to command their attention, and deliver when they’re watching. Talent eventually wins out, but earning respect, appreciation, and support is the result of letting people know you have something to offer and aren’t afraid to prove it. 

ali76. “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.”

*** Everyone starts somewhere. Before you reach the peak of your career, you’ll go through adversity. It’s part of the process. Be receptive to criticism. Seek out people who will provide an honest opinion of your work and give you suggestions to improve. Say yes to jobs that might not be your ultimate goal but put you one step closer to being ready for it. The more you develop trust with a boss, and improve your skills, while getting a stronger understanding of what they need, the closer you’ll be to becoming somebody.

ali147. “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 last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

*** You can have a great voice, look, resume, or connections, but your potential will never be maximized if you don’t have the inner drive to push yourself to the limit. Are you willing to sacrifice to get to where you want to be? What if that means relocating? Missing holidays with your family? Earning less than you believe you’re worth? Do you want it that bad? Talent is one part of the equation. When it’s combined with a burning desire to be the best at any cost, that’s when you’ll reach your full potential.

ali158. “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”

*** You might have big ratings, get recognized in restaurants, have powerful people part of your inner circle, and a paycheck that confirms you’re important. Those are the perks of being a success on radio or television. But to steal a line from Lou Holtz, everyone puts their pants on the same way. Don’t become so caught up in your own ego that you forget who you were before you reached a level that only you thought was possible in your dreams.

ali139. “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

*** Those who think they are beaten, are. No battle is won without confidence. Be willing to embrace a challenge. Whether you’re taking on a radio or television brand that’s enjoyed decades of success. Working with a high profile personality who’s so good that you’re unsure of how to make them better. Or something simpler like growing your social media following or caller activity inside your talk show. If you approach the situation with doubt in your mind, it’s only a matter of time until it takes control of you.

ali1110. “Silence is golden when you can’t think of a good answer.”

*** We all make mistakes in this business. There are times when we don’t meet expectations. Our words and/or actions may even offend or create issues with people we’re close to or in business with. When you’re in the wrong or not in a position of strength, understand that you’re not going to win every war. Sometimes you have to just listen, nod, and let people express themselves. Be willing to hear and understand their concerns, and work towards improving the situation. We all have opinions, and love to talk, but the wisest ones recognize that biting their tongue is necessary sometimes to continue enjoying a great position, and positive working relationship.

ali1611. “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”

*** Winning is in our DNA. We want to be the highest rated talk show in the market. The best paid personality on a radio or TV station. The host featured on billboards who the city takes notice of. But when we come up short (and you will at some point), it’s important to learn from it, and handle losing with class. Being arrogant and offering excuses only makes you easier to root against. Tipping your cap to the competitor and giving credit where it’s due, shows people that you have respect. It may twist your insides apart but more people will flock to your corner, and help you enjoy future success if you treat others respectfully when the odds don’t turn in your favor.

ali412. “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”

*** Every second, minute, segment, hour, and day is an opportunity to create something memorable. How you approach it determines whether or not it matters. Don’t “fill” your air time, own it. Don’t take the safest path because it’s solid and simple, pursue a new road that leads you to greater heights. You’re blessed to do a job that millions wish they could. Never lose sight of that. Take advantage of it every chance you get, because if you don’t, there will be plenty of others who are willing to make that commitment.

ali613. “People don’t realize what they had till it’s gone. Like President Kennedy, there was no one like him, The Beatles, and my man Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing.”

*** Do you think about your legacy? Do you live day to day or think about the long-term impact you hope to leave on the industry? When you’ve spoken your final sentence on the air one day, will your departure matter to those you broadcasted to? Will they remember the body of work you produced five to ten years after you’re gone? It’s impossible to know what the future entails, but there’s a big difference between being a successful host and a game changer. Work towards developing a deeper connection with your listeners or viewers. Establish a niche in the market that makes you unique. Challenge yourself to do work that moves, influences, and satisfies the audience. The longer you do it, the more likely you are to look back one day and appreciate the contributions you made. It could very well make you a legendary figure.

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