The Greatest Storyteller: what you can learn about your own story from Muhammed Ali


The following is part of an introduction to a workshop I gave titled The Creative Power of Personal Storytelling. The workshop was delivered at the Muhammed Ali Center as part of  the MidWest UX 2016 conference.

Photo taken at the Muhammed Ali Center

Photo taken at the Muhammed Ali Center

Muhammed Ali was a boxer but he was also a storyteller.

The person we know of Ali was really a story he conceived himself, first.

Cassius Clay, born 1942, was the grandson of a slave. He was born into racism. He was told he could never be rich or successful because of the colour of his skin.

He struggled with reading; he finished ranked near the bottom of his class in high school.

It might surprise you to know that Ali was not a natural at boxing. He didn’t have the strength, the build or measurement, the classic moves...  the things that were expected of a boxer of the time. His fighting style was weird and awkward, including a cardinal sin in boxing: he kept his hands low.

In 1964, when Ali went into the famous Sonny Liston fight, at the time as Cassius Clay, he was a 7:1 underdog. He was fighting for the title Heavyweight Championship of the World; this was a huge event, at a time when boxing was a much more popular sport than it is today. But seats weren’t filled because people thought it was a waste of time. It was assumed that Liston would knock out Clay and everyone would just go home.

Yet, the night before the fight, Clay had the media broadcasters read a poem he’d written. It described exactly how he expected the fight to go down.

Here’s the poem that Ali wrote:

"Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat, 
If Liston goes back an inch farther he'll end up in a ringside seat. 
Clay swings with a left, Clay swings with a right, 
Just look at young Cassius carry the fight. 
Liston keeps backing but there's not enough room, 
It's a matter of time until Clay lowers the boom. 
Then Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing, 
And the punch raised the bear clear out of the ring. 
Liston still rising and the ref wears a frown, 
But he can't start counting until Sonny comes down. 
Now Liston disappears from view, the crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations have picked him up somewhere over the Atlantic. 
Who on Earth thought, when they came to the fight, 
That they would witness the launching of a human satellite. 
Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money, 
That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny."

Photo taken at the Muhammed Ali Center

Photo taken at the Muhammed Ali Center

To the surprise of everyone except Clay himself, Clay won the fight. He was declared the winner by TKO.

After winning, Clay ran around the ring, yelling out, "Eat your words!". He exclaimed, "I shook up the world,” and his most famous phrase, “I am the greatest!”

Shortly after this, Clay changed his name to Muhammed Ali.

Ali called changing his name “one of the most important things to happen in my life... It freed me.”

Ali used his words to shape his story, his life, and his legacy.

He changed his identity and created a sense of freedom for himself by changing his name. He used storytelling to create a vision for his own success. He gave himself purpose and meaning by defining for himself who he was, and what his legacy would be.

Ali knew his story was his own. No matter the events of his life, or the things outside his control, he refused to let anyone take it from him.

It is because of the power of story that we have the Ali we remember, and are inspired by, and who is honoured in the Muhammed Ali Center.

And this is what personal storytelling is all about: being willing to reimagine ourselves and rewrite our stories, and discovering the freedom that happens next.

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Camille DePutter