Today, we learnt that the world had lost an iconic figure from the last Century.  Although a man from our generation, there are useful lessons the young generation of African innovators could learn from the “World’s Greatest”.  He lived a life and at a time when the world was undergoing many changes, and with potentially many lessons for those who cared to look.  Below, I pull out the five lessons that I think were not only relevant to our generation, but also to the generation of Young African Innovators.

1. You can keep your principles, and still become rich and famous

When Ali was 18, he won a boxing gold medal at the Rome Olympics and returned home an American Hero – enough to propel a poor “Negro” from Kentucky to fame and fortune.  However, when he was denied service in a restaurant because of his colour, Ali surrendered the Olympic medal in protest against racism in America.

When he was was called up to join the US Army in 1967 because America – his beloved country – was at war with the Vietnamese. Ali refused to go and “drop bombs and bullets” on the Vietnamese – those “other brown people” who had done him no wrong or bothered him.  He was arrested, sentence to jail which he did not serve, but was denied a boxing licence for four years; only to come out and become the most famous man in boxing history.

Sticking to your principles can delay the outcome you seek, but it cannot cancel the journey, only delay arrival at the destination (and the generation of Mandela is a daily reminder of this for us in post-colonial Africa).

2. Be a person of the present

Surrendering his Olympic gold medal was a principled act, but it was also an act that showed Ali’s awareness of the growing Civil Rights Movement in America and the Anti-Colonial Struggles in Africa.  It was an act that set him apart from other sportspersons and famous African Americans of his time.  He threw in his lot with Malcolm X and others, and eventually was joined by Martin Luther Jr. and others in America; and became part of the global consciousness movement on the need to decolonize “the brown” people Ali had refused to fight.  He refused to be a “Negro” and became a “Black Man”.

Knowing the issues of your generation and being alert to their demands on the self are important tools for personal development and contributing to society.

3. Whatever you do, start early if you want to be the best

Armed with basic education and even less by way of family inherited wealth, Ali followed the footsteps of many “Negro” men with the talent and physique to enter boxing.  But he also turned a brutal sport watched by a few into a global sport, with fans waking up at 3 am in parts of the world to watch Ali fight.  He changed sports training methods, he innovated on footwork (with Ali Shuffle) as well on jabbing (Floating like a Butterfly and Stinging like a Bee) in the boxing ring, and brought global media to the service of his profession.  He won 56 fights of the 61 he fought in his career – an example of being the best in what you do.  His old schoolmates say he would run behind the school bus as part of his training routine – propelling him to become a global icon.

Ali approached every fight as though it was his first and last; and for every innovator trying to solve Africa’s problems, each task should be undertaken as though it is the first and last – no matter how big or small the development challenge.

4. Your competitors are not your enemies

Ali understood the need to separate issues from the person.  His giving up of a Olympic gold medal was more to do with his protest against racism and prejudice in America than against the person who denied him service in a restaurant.  Similarly, his refusal to fight in Vietnam was not against the AmeriCan white people, but against the injustice of his country (which he loved) fighting what he saw as an unjust war – years before many others around the world came to the same conclusion.

Ali’s continuous goading of Joe Frazier was often portrayed by the media as personal enmity, but in reality he used that personal tension to keep boxing fans keenly interested in the encounters of these two great boxers.   Similarly, few people could get away with a slogan like “Ali Boumaye” (Ali Kill Him – referring to the slogan he had coined on the streets of Kinshasha); a slogan that fans chanted in the stadium as he fought George Foreman – and eventually defeated him.  In his transition from being just a boxer to an activist, Ali had incensed  Sony Liston by public insults that Ali had used in pre-fight publicity to emphasise changes that were taking place in America as the "Negro" was about to rebrand as "Black Man".  Ali was a master at mentally-defeating his opponents long before the bell for the first round in the boxing ring – he understood that to win, all tools of the trade has to be brought to winning; not to kill your competitors, but to defeat them for an-going contest in the market.

Competitors in the market or in the field you excel in are not your enemies, just entrepreneurs trying to get their products and ideas in the market ahead of your own; and them beating you in the market of products and ideas is good for keeping you on your toes.

5. Relentlessly build and promote your brand

Ali was a master showman, and with Don King on his side, he was unmatched by any of his contemporary sportspeople in fame, income, or influence in global culture.  He loudly and cheekily praised his looks, his brains, his skills, and everything about himself while promoting boxing – he understood that it was a business with a global footprint.  He used humour and laughter to great effect while putting together his personality, that of the opponent, and that of boxing – all rolled into one huge media fireball.

Ali learnt to brand every one of his major fights – from the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) against George Foreman, to the Thriller in Manilla against Joe Frazier.  He never missed an opportunity to tease his opponents, goad them, and publicly ridicule them while knowing very well that it was all a game to entertain the world.

Cassius Clay (the name given to him by his parents) was a name to be lost in the sea of many “Italian” names; but Muhammad Ali was a signature name (just like Barack Obama who years later became the first African American President of the United States of America).  He had a knack for understanding how to build a brand.

Even in adversity as a sufferer from Parkinson’s disease, Ali remained a brand builder and did a lot to raise people’s awareness over this terrible affliction.

Whether you are down on your luck, or at the height of your career, or faced by adversity, your brand is important.  Ali managed to weave his personal brand into boxing, social consciousness, and global awareness – that was his brand: that is how he became The Greatest.

Muhammad in his own words