Muhammad Ali’s Secret to Greatness

By Springs Toledo

A sixteen-year-old amateur boxer sits uneasily on a bench in the dressing room at Chicago Stadium. His name will be called any minute and he will make his way to the ring in front of thousands. His mind is in a loop: All those people. All those people watching. An old man known as Punch-Drunk Don shuffles by, pushing a broom. He notices that the teenager is trembling. “Son,” he whispers into his ear, “always confront the thing you fear.”

He was still a teenager when he turned professional. By his eighth bout, he was scheduling victory parties twenty-four hours before fight time. In his eleventh bout, he headlined a card at Madison Square Garden and soon after that he stopped Archie Moore at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. On his way back to the dressing room, he spied an attractive admirer and said “Ain’t I beautiful?” Reporters were waiting inside. “I’m the greatest,” he announced to them. “I’m also the double greatest ‘cause I took him in four just like I told you I would.”

Sugar Ray Robinson was among the amused. Since their meeting in front of his Harlem café, the rising contender would call him now and then for advice. In 1963, Sugar Ray sent Drew Brown to his camp. “Bundini,” as he was called, made a bee-line for the cocky contender, smoke from his cigar trailing behind. “You can’t be predictin’ rounds!” he said. “You fixin’ them. You a phony!”

The Louisville Lip needed a moment.

“You know what the truth is?” he told him. “The truth is, every time I go into the ring I’m scared to death.”

While no one would mistake the ring for a psychologist’s couch, boxing can be viewed as a form of exposure therapy where the natural human instinct to recoil from imminent harm is overcome by constant drilling to do the opposite. In training to slip a punch by moving into it at an angle, boxers condition themselves to overcome fear. Muhammad Ali’s defense, by contrast, was very human: he pulled back, and gave Cus D’Amato conniption fits.

His choice of range was even more telling. Any trainer worth his smelling salts knows that in-fighting separates the technician from the rest. It takes an advanced student of the sweet science, and a brave one, to operate at close quarters, where the field of vision narrows and he is forced to contend not only with fists traveling shorter distances, but elbows, headbutts, shoulder-butts, knees, foot stomps, and yes, teeth. The in-fighter masters his fear because he must. Ali was no in-fighter. His usual reaction when something unpleasant got too close was no different than yours — he recoiled or grabbed hold.

He had a grand total of one legitimate first-round knockout in a sixty-one bout career. Despite respectable punching power, he did not fashion himself a knockout artist. Why? The self-styled poet was wary of poetic justice. Hard punching requires the boxer to set his feet and open his guard within range of getting hit, which is why most knockout artists are eventually knocked out themselves. Not Ali. At his best, he moved like a ballerina out of range and relied on straight punches to pile up points and keep danger at bay.

His unconventional and now iconic fighting style was safety-first. The fear of Ali was right there in plain view the whole time, but our ears fooled our eyes.

Floyd Patterson wasn’t fooled. Ali, he said in 1966, was actually modest and polite and the rest of it (“the bragging and stomping, his histrionics and wisecracks”) was an act. It was more than an act; it was his way of facing down the fear that lives in the chest of every fighter — that lives in the chest of every one of us. “We are afraid of losing,” Patterson said. The lost pride and spoiled record isn’t half of it. A far more daunting consequence of losing is that it jeopardizes future prospects and nudges the fighter “one step closer to the slum he came from.”

Ali’s fear compelled him toward a counterintuitive response. He raised the stakes. “Because of all that poppin’ off, all that predicting, all those people wanting to see me get whipped, I know I’m in trouble,” he told Bundini. “I’m on the spot when I’m out there . . . and I’m scared to death.”

Why all that bombast and bravado before his bouts? Patterson said Ali sought a “do-or-die” frame of mind. Much like Sun Tzu’s general places an uncertain battalion with its back to a mountain to remove the option of retreat, Ali purposefully and publically put himself on ‘death ground’ to make the idea of losing more fearful than it actually was. What his early detractors in the press dismissed as starry-eyed twaddle had the touch of genius. Ali transformed the common human affirmation “I can do it” into a desperate mandate: “I must do it.”

His most famous proclamation was a mantra and perhaps something of an incantation. “I am” recalls Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) and sounds almost mystical, though it has more to do with the power of suggestion, the power of positive thinking if you will. “I am the greatest,” then, springs from the proposition “I think/believe I am the greatest.” Ali quite literally programmed his mind to remove the option of losing and become something transcendent. And he has become and will remain exactly that — something transcendent, something forever dancing outside the reach of death and Cleveland Williams.     

“Always confront the thing you fear.” Many years after those magical words were whispered into the ear of a teenager trembling in a dressing room at Chicago Stadium, Muhammad Ali was in another dressing room at Madison Square Garden. “Look into my eyes,” he told his opponent’s corner man. “I am the real heavyweight. I am the fastest heavyweight who ever lived.”

I am The Greatest.

I am.

Details in this essay were derived from The Greatest: My Own Story (1975) by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham (pp. 109-110, 171); “Clay Lives up to Prediction” AP 11/16/1962; “In Defense of Cassius Clay,” by Floyd Patterson with Gay Talese (Esquire August 1966), and Shadow Box: An Amateur in the Ring (1977) by George Plimpton (pp. 156, 159, 273).

Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War (Tora, 2014) and In the Cheap Seats (Tora, 2016).