Muhammad Ali was undoubtedly a great boxer.
But he was more than that, he was outspoken, witty, arrogant, and always outrageous.
People who didn’t care about boxing would tune in to see Ali fight, or even just listen to him talk.
Because Ali was bigger than boxing.
How he made that happen is a lesson for everyone in advertising.
It was 1961, Ali was then Cassius Clay.
He’d won the Olympics, turned pro and was promoting a fight on a local radio station.
Ali didn’t say much, sportsmen were supposed to be respectful and serious.
But also on the radio was a wrestler called ‘Gorgeous George’ who was promoting his own fight.
He spoke in a way Ali had never heard before.
George said “I am the gorgeous one: the Toast of the Coast, the Sensation of the Nation.
Not only am I the best wrestler, the most highly skilled, with the greatest technique, but I’m also the most beautiful wrestler who ever lived.
If this bum I’m fighting messes up the pretty waves in my hair I’ll tear his arm off.
And if that uneducated punk somehow manages to beat me, I’ll take the next jet to Russia.
But that will never happen because I am the greatest.”
Ali said he was gobsmacked.
The phones went wild with furious people calling in to tell this arrogant son-of-a-bitch what they thought.
And Ali couldn’t wait to see what would happen on the night.
This became more than just another wrestling match.
Ali said the arena was packed.
A fanfare started as Gorgeous George slowly walked to the ring.
He had dyed platinum hair in ringlets, he wore a flowing silk cape.
He had a manservant walk before him carrying a mirror so he could admire his own reflection.
The manservant sprayed perfume all over the ring before Gorgeous George would deign to enter it.
In the ring, he preened and posed, inviting the crowd to admire him.
They went wild, they screamed abuse, he called them rabble and peasants
Ali said he couldn’t believe the level of hysteria.
Wrestling wasn’t popular, but when Gorgeous George was on the bill people queued round the block.
Gorgeous George earned many times more than the other wrestlers.
And the young Ali says he watched and learned that night.
He thought “This man can make all this money with just his mouth. This is a goo-ood idea.”
It was the period of growing television sales in America.
It’s estimated that Gorgeous George sold as many TV sets as the other entertainers put together.
Because he was outrageous he was bigger than wrestling.
Which is exactly what Ali says he learned from him.
In marketing terms it’s called ‘positioning’.
When you position yourself you reposition the competition.
By being outrageous you separate yourself off from the rest of the sector.
Then you become an alternative to that group, instead of just another member of the group.
Which is why Muhammad Ali became outrageous and how he made himself bigger than boxing.