Last weekend, I watched coverage of Muhammad Ali's death. Like many, I admired his tenacity, charisma, defiance and his ability to be true to himself. As I watched his life unfold throughout the weekend, something struck me. As is often the case, we, the admirers and observers, look at results and achievements. We tend to ignore the work required to get there. The work required to be the greatest.
While myriad significant events shaped his life, Feb. 25, 1964 - the night then Cassius Clay won the Heavyweight Championship of the World - stands out. A fight against Sonny Liston - then the World Heavyweight Champion - that is now boxing lore, is also a case study in perseverance, and serves as a roadmap for us all to apply to our lives and careers.
Before arriving in Miami Beach the evening of Feb. 22, many in Ali's camp thought he was not prepared to fight the toughest champion of the era. Sonny Liston Jr. was formidable by any standard. He was a one-time mob enforcer, and generally speaking, a menacing figure in and out of the ring. In the ring, Liston had just come off two first-round knockouts against Floyd Patterson. According to Felix Dennis in his book Muhammad Ali, "of the 46 sportswriters at ringside, 43 had picked Sonny Liston to win by knockout." Everyone thought Ali was in over his head. Ali seemed to be the only one in his circle who had an inner belief he could succeed.
Time and again, stories like this occur in our own lives and careers. People around us project their insecurities and therefore we do not believe we can achieve what we aspire. Whenever this is the case, remind yourself that you are the author of your career. If you have the skills needed, and you believe in yourself to go forward - nothing should stop you.
The first few rounds of the fight, Ali asserted himself and even took control. But, during the fourth round, Liston placed a substance on his gloves that blinded Ali. During the break between the fourth and fifth rounds, Ali's eyes were burning and he could not see, forcing him to his corner. At some point, the referee noticed something was going on. Ali told his trainer, legendary Angelo Dundee, that he did not want to continue the fight. Dundee wouldn't let Ali quit, and ordered him to run.
Time and again, we all want to quit. A challenge presents itself that seems too great to face. What do you do when you go after what you wanted for so long only to find that through no fault of your own, and in some cases because of outside interference, your efforts feel thwarted?
On that night in 1964, Ali avoided his opponent in the ring for three minutes, able only to make out his shadow. He was subject to several vicious hits, but by the end of the round, his sweat had seeped into his eyes, clearing out whatever substance had found its way in. When the bell rang for the sixth round, Ali absolutely pummeled Liston and Liston did not return for the seventh round. Ali was crowned as champion and his legend began.
Facing Your Fifth Round
In life and in your career, you will face your own personal fifth round. Perhaps you didn't get the job, the promotion or the bonus. Maybe you didn't make the sale. In response, you decided to throw in the towel and quit. You decided to stop putting in effort. You gave up the fight.
Had Ali given up against Sonny Liston, history would be different. Ali would have never been crowned the World Heavyweight Champion. He would have never gone on to become a humanitarian and cultural icon known for standing up for what he believed in. He would never have been known as The Greatest, inspiring generations to come.
What will you do the next time you encounter a fifth round situation? How you deal with the challenges you face might determine YOUR greatness.