My Time With ‘The Greatest’ – A Lesson in Authenticity

In 1986, I was doing TV lead generation for a Medicare Supplement brand when a gift fell into my lap. Muhammad Ali had purchased our Med Supp product for his parents, and was open to our overtures to endorse the brand.

Target Marketing Blogger Chuck McLeester with Muhammad Ali in 1986.
Target Marketing Blogger Chuck McLeester with Muhammad Ali in 1986.

In 1986, I was doing TV lead generation for a Medicare Supplement brand when a gift fell into my lap. Muhammad Ali had purchased our Med Supp product for his parents, and was open to our overtures to endorse the brand.

WOW! We were going to make a TV commercial with “The Greatest” and I would be spending two days on the set with him and his parents, Cassius and Odessa Clay.

It was a beautiful day on location at a classic Southern-style home in Maryland with a wrap-around porch. At that time, the Champ could barely speak, and he didn’t really try to. Nor did he have to. His presence was overwhelming, his demeanor calm and confident, and the look in his eyes communicated nothing but warmth and kindness. He managed to muster enough control to say his one line at the end of the spot, but his mother, Mrs. Clay, did all the heavy lifting with the script.

Mr. and Mrs. Clay sat together on the porch while Mrs. Clay recited a classic DRTV script: Call out to the audience, present the problem/solution, and deliver a call to action. Cassius Clay Sr., who was not as smooth-spoken as his wife Odessa Clay, nodded in agreement.

All the while, Mr. Ali entertained the crew with his magic tricks and other antics, and he delighted some local children who had stopped by to view the spectacle, giving them his undivided attention until he retreated for his prayer time.

His demeanor bore little resemblance to the brash young fighter taunting his opponents with poetic bluster. Or to the man who was one of the most polarizing figures in America during a politically tumultuous era, denouncing the war in Vietnam, embracing the Muslim religion and changing his name to the one that we associate with the man who was the most recognizable person on the planet.

During that time, I was learning a lot about direct response marketing – grinding through the nitty gritty of maximizing lead volume within an allowable acquisition cost and testing ways to improve lead conversion. I don’t think I was conscious of the fact that I was a witness to one of the most amazing evolutions of a personal brand — ever.

After he lost his boxing license for three years over his refusal to be inducted into the army, he reclaimed the heavyweight championship, was exonerated as a conscientious objector, fought in the ring until 1981, and then became an ambassador for peace and tolerance. In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. It’s the highest civilian award in the United States.

Throughout his evolution, Ali never strayed from his core principles: fairness, self-confidence, hard work, determination, persistence and most importantly, authenticity.

These core principles were the essence of his brand and he embraced them throughout every stage of his life. That’s how it’s done.

Rest in Peace, Champ!