What makes a legend

This weekend the world woke up to the sad news of Muhammad Ali, passing away at the age of 74.

And everyone’s facebook timeline was overtaken by words, pictures and video tributes. Quite a few of the posts that I saw actually referred to the fact that they were not even fans of boxing. Yet they felt sad, and moved to share their ‘on-line grief’.

That got me thinking about what is it that makes for a legend. What is it that separates greatness from legendary.

In my opinion it is a unique combination of 3 factors. And I will use Ali as support for my example:

Good at your job: I believe the foundation of a legend is a core competence in an area. With Ali it was boxing. Factually speaking he fought 61 fights over a professional career lasting 21 years, recording 56 wins. These included 37 knockouts. He was crowned World Heavyweight Champion thrice and won the Olympic gold medal once.

Stand for something meaningful (at personal risk): Ali was a boxer yet he stepped out of the ring to take a stance on the matter of race. He refused to be drafted though it meant that he would be stripped off his boxing license and medals. He made it very clear that he’d rather fight for the freedom of blacks than the freedom of people unknown, thousands of miles away. For this he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000.

Create sound bytes that live on: Ali had a lot to say about many things. All perfect to remember and pass along. Some of his more famous quotes were

  • Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
  • I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.
  • I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.

And longer statements like “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

I believe it is a perfect combination of these three elements that makes for legends.

  • Being good at your job
  • Taking a stance on a social matter, at personal risk
  • Having the ability to communicate in quick sound bytes that will travel well and be remembered

Those who have 1 or 2 of these will be remembered as being great. So will having all three.

But in the case of Ali, they were in perfect harmony. And that is what made him a legend.

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