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
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.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International