“Who’s the greatest now?”
It was the first time Muhammad Ali had lost a fight. Technically, he had lost once before to Joe Frazer, but that was controversial, and Ali didn’t feel he lost that one. It was a technicality. But this time around, he knew. A broken jaw has a way of making a fighter feel a loss.
An uppercut in one of the opening rounds broke his jaw, but he didn’t stop him. He went through the rest of the fight, round after round, protecting his face and trying to knock out the local fighter, Ken Norton. It was the only way to win the fight.
He couldn’t get close enough without opening himself up. If Norton hit his jaw again, it would be life-threatening. In the end, Norton’s hand was raised. Ali lost on points.
The crowd erupted and started rushing to the ring. For years many in his nation despised Ali. They hated him not just because he was a black man, but because he was a black man who dared to claim that he was the greatest. Greater than who? Everyone? Greater then they were? It got under their skin. In the minds of those who hated him, Ali losing to their local fighter was final proof they needed to tell him he was wrong. They went wild at the chance to let him know it.
Ali was escorted from the ring by a barrage of security guards. The crowd was screaming insults and threats. When they got Ali to his change room, while they were searching for a doctor, someone managed to push through the door just long enough to cry out, “Who’s the greatest now?”
It’s amazing how far apart these two people were in their mindset. One, a spectator, who waited for the opportunity to tear Ali down and to sow doubt; the other, a champion who worked every day for the chance to live his dream, and who sowed belief every day to fuel that vision.
People who heard Ali all the years prior making that claim, I am the greatest, thought he was boasting. They thought he was proud. They thought he was narcissistic. But it wasn’t about trying to get others to believe him. Ali only wanted one person to believe it, himself; because he was the only one who could do the work to make it a reality. What he was doing was selling himself on a vision that would motivate to train harder than anyone else.
Ali made the statement, “I am the greatest,” to remind himself of what he was attempting to achieve. They weren’t words for everyone else, but saying them loud and proud was a way to keep himself accountable. It was a way to reinforce his beliefs. They were words to himself to remind himself that he had no right to lower his ambition, no reason to be satisfied with being good, or even great; no, he had to train the way the greatest would train. He had to work harder than the greats because there could be only one greatest. He wanted to be the best he could be, and that meant his standard had to be as high as possible. Most aimed to be great. Ali aimed higher—to be the greatest.
Think about it: What do you want to be the greatest at? Not just good, not just great, but the greatest?
I tried this on myself, and I felt a tangible level of discomfort. On the surface, I think I worried about how others would perceive such an ambition. But that’s not the real issue. In fact, I think that’s a convenient cop out. The reason this kind of questioning is uncomfortable, I’ve come to conclude, is because it is connected focus and effort.
To be average, you just have to have an average amount of focus and put in an average amount of effort. But to be the greatest requires the greatest level of focus and effort. Those who are spectating think being the greatest is about the spotlight and the glory, but those who are working to be the greatest know it’s about the focus and effort to get there. The mindsets are worlds apart.
It’s so easy to be a spectator. It’s easy to sit in the grandstand of life and watch those who dare to be great, even the greatest, and wait for a moment to pull them down. But it’s a shallow life. Its highlights are dependent on the setbacks of others. Its own boast is in the pleasure of watching others fall short.
“Who’s the greatest now?” The spectator said with pride. He wasn’t alone in trying to pull Ali down, seeing it as the moment to make him stop with his crazy ambitions and statements of greatness. For months after his loss in the boxing ring, hate mail was sent to Ali. Messages of doubt and disgrace. One of those letters was a blank page with just two lines written in the middle. It said:
“The butterfly has lost its wings. The bee has lost its sting.”
Ali took that message and tapped it next to his punching bag. He was grateful for it. The writer intended it to dampen his ambition, but he used it instead as fuel. He looked at it every day as he trained for a rematch against Norton. Those words were meant to chip away at Ali’s confidence and fill him with doubt, but he used them to remember who he was—I am the greatest—and if he had lost his wings, he had to train harder than anyone else to get them back. If he had lost his sting, he had to fight harder than anyone to get it back. That’s just what he did.
He went on to beat Norton in the rematch and beat him again after that. He also went on to beat George Foreman. Eventually, he went on to be remembered not as a good figher, or a great fighter, but as the greatest.
“Who’s the greatest now?” 45 years after that spectator asked that question, the answer remains the same: Ali is.