He could stop traffic in Moscow, Tokyo, Nairobi, Shanghai, and Mumbai. Kings, presidents, and prime ministers worldwide would take his call. He outshines Madonna, Mick Jagger, and Meryl Streep.

Although it has been more than 25 years since he occupied center stage, he is the world's greatest personal brand. He is the incomparable Mohammad Ali.

He is a colossus astride decades of sports history. Sports Illustrated named him "Athlete of the Century." His fights with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman are called boxing's greatest ever. He was the first boxer to win the heavyweight title three times. He was a gold medal winner at the 1960 Olympics. One of his fights was seen by an out-of-work actor called Sylvester Stallone, and became the inspiration for Rocky.

Ali's boxing record is the stuff of legend, and boxing has never been the same since he retired. But just as interesting are the lessons his life holds for developing your own personal brand:

  • Think international: At a time when most Americans could not find Canada on a map, Ali had fights in Toronto, London, Zurich, London, Jakarta, Kinshasa, Munich, Kuala Lumpur, Dublin, Manila, and elsewhere. Whatever you are doing now, think about doing it internationally, especially since globalization makes it not only easier but also crucial.

  • Live your principles: At a time the powers-that-be were saying we had to fight the enemy abroad so we wouldn't have to fight them at home, Ali said, "I got nothin' against them Vietcong." Because of his beliefs, he was indicted for refusing induction into the Army during Vietnam, and lost his heavyweight title for almost four years. That was when he was at his peak as a fighter, and it meant the loss of millions of dollars. After winning a gold medal for his country, he came back to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky; and after being refused service in a restaurant because of his color, he went outside and threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. Contrast him to Tiger Woods, who did not boycott the Masters because of its gender- and race-based exclusion, and Michael Jordan, who did not support the black opponent to segregationist Jesse Helms because "Republicans buy sneakers too."

  • Live your faith: Ali gave up his "slave name" of Cassius Clay after converting to Islam, eventually becoming a Sunni Muslim. He refused the draft because of his faith. He was called a black racist because he argued against interracial marriage. All this created a strong backlash, but Ali never recanted.

  • Feed the media: The best PR strategy boils down to this: "Feed the media." Ali actively courted reporters, symbolized by his long-time friendship with Howard Cosell. He knew the value of promotion. He once locked up his gloves in a Malaysian jail before a bout, and wore T-shirts that read "Manila guerrilla." He gave copy that wrote stories by themselves:

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

    • "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

    • "Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head."

    • "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."

  • Train hard for your moment in the sun: Click on the picture here, taken after Ali took down then-champion Sonny Liston minutes into the first round. Marvel at the forearms and feel the power in his torso. That comes only after days and weeks and months of lonely training in the gym. George Foreman had won 37 of his previous 40 fights by knockout, almost all within three rounds. So Ali came up with his rope-a-dope strategy, training his body to take the worst punishment Foreman could throw. By the seventh round, Foreman was exhausted, and Ali took him out. To toughen his stomach for the bout, Ali did a thousand sit-ups a day even though he "hated every minute" of training.

  • Do good: Ali has delivered food and medical supplies to children in Cote D'Ivoire, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, and many other countries. His Web site claims Ali has helped provide more than 232 million meals to feed the hungry. He has helped free US hostages from Iraq and delivered food and medicine to Cuba, Afghanistan, and North Korea. He is the chief fundraiser for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

  • Rise above your difficulties: Ali has Parkinson's syndrome, a debilitating disease that likely resulted from fighting long after he should have stopped. But he just celebrated his 65th birthday, and still travels more than 200 days a year in support of the causes he believes in.

I highly recommend King of the World: Mohammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick, which looks at Ali's life till he retired from boxing as well as the state of black-white relations through the 1970s.

Remnick said it best: Ali is an "American myth who has come to mean many things to many people: a symbol of faith, a symbol of conviction and defiance, a symbol of beauty and skill and courage, a symbol of racial pride, of wit and love."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Wreden is the author of ProfitBrand: How to Increase the Profitability, Accountability and Sustainability of Brands (named "Best Business Book of 2005" by strategy+business) and FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future. Reach him at nick@fusionbrand.com.