Boxing, Martial Arts and Business

“Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” — M. Ali

That was probably the most memorable quote from “the Greatest”, for those who appreciate and/or practice boxing or martial arts in general. His passing yesterday saddened many but it was also a good time to do self-reflection. Since I run a company myself, I see many parallels between martial arts and business, especially in the world of startups. I feel it is not inappropriate to share that a day after the passing of “the Greatest”.

Ali vs. Frazier in Thrilla in Manila (Credit: AP)

One Punch Knockouts

Running a startup these days is a lot like a boxing match. The business world at large is your opponent pretty much. You also have fans and judges. The early-stage investors, depending on their role, can be both your agents and the match makers. No metaphor is perfect, but the reality is that inside the ring, it is the company against the world and it can be brutal and exhilarating to watch.

The metaphor gets better when we actually get into the techniques of boxing. We often see in startups these days what are often called one-punch-knockouts in boxing. They are the most exciting kind of outcomes, no doubt, but it certainly takes more than that to win a match. The footwork, the angles, and of course stamina are what made “the Greatest” the greatest. The same is true in running a company.

Be Formless

If we continue to push the metaphor, one must ask what is the highest form of martial art and what is its parallel in companies. Well, for the former, there is only one grand master who could answer that question…

“Be water my friend” — Bruce Lee

For the later, I propose the closest parallel we see is what are called conglomerates, like Alphabet and Berkshire Hathaway. I am not here to explain Bruce Lee’s philosophy and there are a universe of business books which deal with business strategies. Without getting into the technicality of running a successful business, one must admit there are something elegant about companies like Alphabet, Bershire Hathaway, and their likes. That’s because they are formless. There are a lot to learn from those who have crated these conglomerates. After all, who would not want to turn their company into something like either of those two conglomerates?

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