The Rhetorical Genius of Muhammad Ali

The world has lost a legend. A boxing legend, a sporting legend, a human legend. Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74.

Muhammad Ali photo

Muhammad Ali – “The Greatest”

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali gained worldwide attention in 1960 when, at the age of 18, he won the Gold Medal in light-heavyweight boxing at the Rome Olympics. Four years later, won the world heavyweight championship in a stunning upset victory over Sonny Liston.

Ali was World Heavyweight Champion from 1964 to 1967, 1974 to 1978 and 1978 to 1979. In his professional career, he fought 61 times, with a record of 56-5. He had several memorable fights, including the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman and the 1975 Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier.

But Ali was more than a boxer. He was a powerful voice in the United States against the Vietnam War during the turbulent 1960s. His refusal to be drafted resulted in him being convicted, stripped of his championship title and stripped of his license to box. It took four years of legal battles before the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction.

Ali’s influence extended well beyond the boxing ring. He inspired generations of black Americans—including Martin Luther King—and others by speaking out against racism and injustice. William Rhoden, a columnist with The New York Times, wrote:

Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?

When it came to speaking in public, Ali was larger than life. Brash and outspoken, he had unshakeable self-confidence, frequently referring to himself as “The Greatest”, a well-deserved nickname that stuck. At the same time, he had a wonderful sense of humour and a poetic touch that endeared him to millions.

Below are 14 quotes from Ali that demonstrate his rhetorical genius, grouped by rhetorical device. The list is by no means complete, so feel free to add your own favourite Ali quotes in the comments.

Anaphora: Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of sentences or clauses.

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.

Antimetabole: Repetition of the same words or phrases in reverse order.

There are no pleasures in a fight, but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win.


Don’t count the days, make the days count.

Antithesis: Contrasting two opposite ideas in the same sentence or consecutive sentences.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.

Asyndeton: The omission of conjunctions such as “and” from a series of related phrases or clauses.

I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.


It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand, I beat people up.

Hyperbole: An exaggerated statement that makes a point but is not meant to be taken literally.

I have wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.


I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.

Metaphor: Comparing two things (that are often not alike) by stating that one is the other.

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.

Polysyndeton: The repetition of conjunctions such as “and” in close succession, especially when some of them could be replaced with a comma.

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.

Rhyme: The same sound in different words, particular the ends of the words and particularly words at the end of a phrase or sentence.

If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it.”


It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila.

TricolonA series of three words, phrases or sentences that are parallel in structure, length and/or rhythm.

I hated every minute of training, but I said, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”


Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.


Since writing this post, I came across this article in The Ringer entitled “Everything You Need to Read and Watch About Muhammad Ali”. You won’t have any trouble finding information about Muhammad Ali on the Internet, but this article has collected a number of good articles and videos all in one place.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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