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3 Lessons for Lawyers From the Life of Muhammad Ali

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

One of the world's greatest athletes passed away last weekend. Muhammad Ali, the three time world boxing champ, died on Saturday at the age of 74. Ali was more than just a thrilling boxer, he was an icon, a justifiably self-confident braggart, a war resister, and a civil rights advocate. And for a celebrity athlete, he had a closer connection to the law than many. His death came just shy of the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision overturning his conviction for draft evasion.

Here's what lawyers can learn from his life and passing.

1. You're the Prettiest Thing That Ever Lived. Or, Don't Be Shy.

Ali wasn't known for his humility and you shouldn't be either. When Ali, then still going by his birth name, Cassius Clay, first won the heavyweight championship at the age of just 22, he declared, "I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I'm the prettiest thing that ever lived!"

That bubbly self-confidence and self-promotion marked Ali throughout his life and it helped propel his career. It wasn't always justified, but Ali knew that. Singing your own praises doesn't just emphasize your skill to others, but it can be performative, helping you achieve the even more. "I'm the greatest," Ali often claimed. "I said that even before I knew I was."

2. Be Patient

Muhammad Ali's fights could be long and grueling, but he had the patience to come out of top. In the famous "Rumble in the Jungle," Ali took on then-heavyweight champion George Foreman, who was expected to win with 40-1 odds. Ali floated like a butterfly much more than he stung like a bee, wearing Foreman down over eight rounds. When his opponent was exhausted, Ali took him out with a few quick punches.

That "rope-a-dope" strategy worked, and it's one many lawyers know almost instinctively. Got an opponent who's bigger and stronger and better positioned than you? Wear them out. Delay, divert, and drag things out as much as is ethically possible, until they're exhausted. It's not always the most exciting strategy, but it's one that works.

3. Don't Be Afraid to Take a Stand

When Ali was drafted for the Vietnam War, he refused. He would not go and fight the Viet Cong, he declared. "My conscience won't let me go and shoot them. They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me," he said. "How can I shoot those poor people? Just take me to jail."

Ali didn't go to jail, but at the height of his career he lost his ability to box, spending three years out of the ring. But he used that time advocating for racial justice, fighting the Vietnam War, and speaking at colleges throughout the country. It was stances such as that which made Ali not just a boxer, but a cultural force.

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